The Testaments, or the Literary Merits of the Political Novel
This piece contains spoilers for Margaret Atwood's last novel and sequel to the Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments.
In 2014, Margaret Atwood did something unexpected. She wrote a sequel to one of her most accomplished novels: "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth," one of the nine wicked tales published in her short story collection The Stone Mattress, revisits the main characters of The Robber Bride, allowing faithful readers to find out what had happened to Charis, Tony and Roz in the aftermath of their ambiguous nemesis Zenia's death in a few quirky pages. In 2019, of course, everything has changed in regards to Atwood. Nothing is quite unexpected. Back in 2014, she was simply one of the most revered writers of the English-speaking world. Now, she's a superstar. The critical acclaim and political impact of the TV adaptation of her 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, released a few months after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017, has turned Atwood into a feminist prophet. Naturally, when the news of a sequel was announced by her publisher, thirty-four years after the publication of the first book, it felt like an early Christmas gift for readers all across the globe. The hype soon reached the critical sphere: as I write these lines, the book is shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Atwood has made the front page of countless magazines. For better or for worse, the launch of the novel itself can only be compared to the highest point of Harry Potter's popularity.
In that context, reviewing The Testaments feels like a challenge. This sequel encapsulates a number of contemporary issues: the disproportionate superstardom status given to a small number of authors; the way in which written sequels struggle to find their place after the original work has been adapted into a TV show (although, let’s be fair, Atwood was smarter than George R. R. Martin on that front); the reboot and sequel culture that question our ability to let go of cult classics after their publication, less than five years after Harper Collins’s controversial decision to publish Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee's confidential sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The challenge rises not only for the author but also for us, the readers: impartiality is impossible in regards to a novel that has, for many of us, contributed in defining our relationships to feminism. In other words, the reading experience of The Testaments depends almost completely on each reader's relationship to the original material. Some readers discovered The Handmaid's Tale in the early 1990s, in the context it was originally written for; some included it in the feminist corpus they built for themselves in the early 2000s; some first approached it in the mid-2010s after the show came out. In any sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, all, in one way or another, would have expected something similar to the chilling dystopian novel and the uncompromising, claustrophobic atmosphere induced by Offred's limited point of view. And so, it must be said upfront: The Testaments bears little resemblance to the literary ambitions of The Handmaid's Tale.
Readers that were put off by the extreme violence and grimness of the original book and its TV adaptation can be reassured: if anything, the problem with The Testaments is its disproportionate optimism. It appears that Atwood set three objectives for herself when writing this novel: to tie up the loose ends of the TV adaptation and produce a script ready for adaptation (and indeed, the rights to The Testaments are already signed up to be adapted in a TV show), to write an entertaining, fast-paced thriller, and to breathe new life into the political activism she helped inspire. The results are indeed an inspiring page-turner, where the human casualties are kept to a minimum, but the novel is one that lacks the devastating urgency of its predecessor.
Beware: spoilers start here
Fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid's Tale, Gilead is not flourishing as it once had been. Threatened by wars at its borders and an increasingly organized resistance on its soil, the autocratic regime readers came to know and fear is crumbling like the Soviet block in the late 1980s Its downfall is narrated by three women: Aunt Lydia, Offred's former persecutor; Baby Nicole, the daughter she successfully smuggled to Canada; and Agnes Jamina, the one who stayed behind.
I would have loved to read about the attachment one can form to an autocratic regime, growing up in its system without having known anything else, no matter its monstrosity, or about the paranoia seizing Gilead's nomenklatura as they sense the end drawing near. These elements are alluded to but never truly explored, as the focus is set here on the women who don't just survive under dictatorship but who thrive in the resistance.
Readers find out that Aunt Lydia was in fact pulling off a Professor Snape from the very beginning, and was using her privileged position in the administration of Gilead to help organize the "Underground Femaleroad" (in terminology, as in many other details of the book, subtlety proves not to be the author's priority). As the plot of the novel unfolds, Aunt Lydia takes Agnes Jamina under her protection, whose fairy-tale point of view, growing up first adored by a first adoptive mother, then mistreated by her stepmother, proves to be truly touching. When Agnes is set to be married at thirteen, Aunt Lydia gives her permission to become an Aunt instead, that is to say, the equivalent of a nun in Gilead. Agnes and her close friend Becka – whose relationship is not sufficiently explored in the novel, unfortunately – are soon joined by Nicole, whose perspective is undoubtedly the weakest part of the novel. She comes across as a heavy-handed caricature of a teenager raised in a free country - an impression comforted by the fact that she was subjected to all the plot points expected of a young protagonist directly drawn from the dozen YA dystopian novels we've been exposed to in the past ten years, from her crush on the broody and handsome boy training her to be a fighter, to her daring escape in the closing pages of the book. For that is what The Testaments ultimately feels like: a YA novel, which is a strange twist of fate considering that The Handmaid's Tale has itself inspired a number of – sometimes excellent, sometimes not – YA novels (among the excellent, Louise O'Neill, Only Ever Yours comes to mind).
This is where The Testaments undermines itself the most: it supposes that in order to be an entertaining read, a dystopian novel should banish all ambiguity from its operating forces, even though the genre has proven that it wasn't incompatible with moral complexity. It would be hard to argue against the fact that Gilead is an awful country, but at no point does The Testaments consider the situation that allowed the regime to appear and overthrow the American government fifteen years earlier. Letting Gilead incarnate all evil in this world, from the oppression of the working class to global warming, ultimately damages what makes the specificity of her dystopian world in the mind of the readers. At the beginning of the novel, Canadian protesters are shown holding up signs that say "GILEAD, CLIMATE SCIENCE DE-LIAR! GILEAD WANTS US TO FRY!" It's a detail, but it made me tick: if Gilead is a society that has reduced — by force — half of its workforce and returned to traditional values, how can it possibly not have decreased its carbon print drastically? How could it possibly be higher than Canada, which is shown as a capitalist society? Why is the fertility crisis barely mentioned in this novel, even though it was clearly established in The Handmaid's Tale as the result of an abundance of chemicals in our environment? The answer to all these questions might simply be that Atwood intended to write the novel as an inspirational tale showing us that even the darkest political times come to an end; that the end of the world is not a monolith; that Gilead, too, shall pass. It's up to each reader to decide if this ambition meets their expectations.
If I were to establish a scale of unexpected sequels, The Testaments would indubitably fall closer to the Gilmore Girls revival than the third season of Twin Peaks. But if what you're looking for is an entertaining and inspiring novel to renew your activist energy a year before the election that will break, or extend the Trump era, then it might just be what you're looking for.
Milena Le Fouillé is an art historian based in Paris, France, with a specialty in nineteenth and twentieth century art and a strong taste for mythology, fairy tales and legends. She's probably hiding in a museum's cafeteria right now, reading a novel when she really should be working.