BOOK REVIEW: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

written by David Steffen

The Testaments is a 2019 near-future (or I guess alternate-history at this point?) novel by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to the well-known 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed here) (which in itself spawned the ongoing Hulu TV series of 3 seasons, seasons 1 2 and 3 reviewed here). Note that for the purposes of this novel, the tv series is not part of the same continuity, so don’t expect the two to reconcile.

The Testaments takes place over a span of time but beginning approximately fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale was the reader’s introduction to Gilead, a Christian fundamentalist dystopic nation born from the ashes of the United States after a violent coup. The first book followed a single point of view, of one of the handmaids known only as “Offred”. The handmaids are a lower class in Gilead society, who are believed to be sinners, and who are considered to do a public service by serving as breeding stock in this future where healthy birth rate has plummeted.

In this new book, rather than a single point of view from a handmaid, there are three first-person points of view interleaved with each other. The first one is a familiar character from the first book: Aunt Lydia, one of the women who was responsible for acclimating the Handmaids to the brutal new conditions they would be living under, taking on the guise of a teacher but with brutal torturous methods.

The other two points of view are young women, one young woman who is the daughter of a Gilead commander, and the other a young woman living in Canada. Their importance and connection to each other becomes apparent as the story unfolds.

The novel is an interesting addition to the tale of the nation of Gilead, but it lacks the impact of the first novel in large part because it doesn’t have the novelty of the original. While it’s interesting to see some different points of views from different occupations, and it casts some new light on the characters (Aunt Lydia in particular since we’d never had her own account before). It’s well worth a read, and it flowed from beginning to end, but it felt like an addendum to the original story to tie up some things than something strong in its own right (when I thought that the mystery of the original was a strength of that book).

So, it’s worth a read if you thought the original was powerful, or if you have followed the TV show as an alternate series of events from a similar origin, but not as impactful as the original.

BOOK REVIEW: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

written by David Steffen

The Handmaid’s Tale is a near future dystopia published in 1985 about a United States of America that has become an oppressive theocracy.  ((It has also very recently become a TV series streaming on Hulu, but I haven’t seen the show so I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about that)

Offred lives in Gilead, the theocratic country that the United States has become in a near future.  The Christian Bible is the rule of the land, or at least a very strict interpretation of a very selective subset of the Christian Bible.  Tales of the “way things used to be” are a constant mantra told by those in power to justify the extreme measures taken to uphold the current law, tales of when women could not walk the street without being harassed, when women were expected to paint themselves for beauty, when women had to fear rape and assault.  Women are safe now, they say, treated as the precious vessels they are meant to be, to bear children as God intended.  There is a wall in town where the body of criminals are hung on display: atheists and homosexuals and adulterists and traitors and others.  All for the safety of the good citizens of Gilead, of course.

A lingering effect of the way things used to be is low fertility across the population, caused by some mixture of chemicals, diet, medications, intentional blocking of fertility, and other causes.  In the new world women who can’t produce children are unwomen, sent to labor camps to live short miserable lives.  Lower class women, at least.  Upper class women may be assigned handmaids who, inspired by the tale of Jacob’s handmaiden in the Bible, may act as a pregnancy proxy for an infertile wife (according to the dictates of Gilead, no man is infertile, it is always the wife).

Offred is a handmaid, assigned to a military officer.  The rise of Gilead is recent enough that she had had a family before the change, a family that was torn apart as Gilead declared second marriages void.  Even her name has been taken–“Offred” is not the name that she had before, but is derived from the man she is beholden to, as in “of Fred”.  She is watched very carefully, as she is considered a valuable vessel, and she is protected from everything, even herself–her room has shatter-proof glass in the windows, the ceiling fan removed, and the knives in the kitchen are locked away.  Every month when she’s ovulating, she performs her duty in order to become pregnant, and time is running out before she is declared an unwoman.

In the prologue to the book, in the copy of the book that I read, Atwood talks about some of the narrative choices she made.  When she decided to write a dystopia, she decided to do it without predicting any future technology, so nothing in the book is anything that wasn’t possible with technology at the time the book was written.  This sets it apart from stories like 1984, which depends on the possibility of thought control, or The Hunger Games, which uses various future technologies.

Another thing that sets it apart was that Atwood wanted to base the theocracy of Gilead on actual scripture, and to base all the things people do to each other on actual things from history.  This gives it a very different feel from many dystopias, because it feels like it could be just around the corner.  The book was published more than thirty years ago, but I’m not surprised that it has become a recent show, because many of the concerns and issues at the root of this book are still concerns today–especially with too many members of the US government passing laws based in theocracy.  Despite the separation of church and state inherent in the founding of the country, there are those who cling to the Puritan roots of that more than the word of the Constitution.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling cautionary tale about where we could end up if we are complacent in the face of the rise of fascism.  I can’t recommend the book enough–it is a dark read, so brace yourself.  It is very well written, chilling, poetic, and moving.  I don’t have Hulu but I’d like to pick up the show when I can, perhaps if it comes out in a box set.