It’s a shame to say, but I was disappointed by The Testaments – the new sequel to Margaret Atwood’s seminal feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favourite books. It’s told from the perspective of a normal woman whose freedom is stripped away when a fundamentalist Christian sect takes over the government of what is implied to be the USA.
The single perspective of the original novel allows the world of Gilead to be revealed over time. Flashbacks provide context, and all the characters are shown as full-realised human beings with flaws. Not so in the sequel. Atwood struggles to develop her two teenage protagonists, especially Daisy who suffers from ‘chosen one’ syndrome. And the men of Gilead are revealed to be murderous paedophiles, or one-dimensional silhouettes.
The book is strongest when Atwood is writing from the perspective of Aunt Lydia – an older women full of regret for the mistakes of her past – but even this has problems. In the original book Aunt Lydia was responsible for re-educating the women who’ve been identified as fertile in preparation for their new lives as handmaids, baby making additions to the households of the infertile commanders and their Stepford wives. In the sequel she’s cast as a saviour who’s actually been masterminding the downfall of the regime from the inside. We see her saving girls from unhappy (or downright deadly) marriages by inducting them into the sisterhood of the Aunts – who in this book are rendered like studious nuns rather than the primary facilitators of patriarchal oppression they were in the original.
What’s even more frustrating is that the novel doesn’t even show the downfall of Gilead, it skips ahead to when it’s merely a historical footnote. Because of this it teaches us next to nothing about how to actually dismantle an oppressive authoritarian regime – possibly because Atwood doesn’t actually know. The original novel was at its best when it was showing how individuals can be co-opted into their own oppression. It didn’t contain any huge acts of rebellion or bravery, instead it was all about the little things that keep a person going – leaving encouraging messages for the next person who’ll occupy your prison cell, the joy of fresh fruit, the value of small acts of kindness, the importance of finding human connections. The sequel forgets all this. It’s characters are either incredibly selfless, manipulative, or so self-sacrificing it borders on stupidity. The fate of Becka, for instance, left me unbelievably angry. No, the whole book left me angry. And sad. I’d go so far as to recommend that fans of the original book shouldn’t read Testaments. It deserves a more thorough critical review than I’ve managed here, but suffice to say – The Handmaid’s Tale deserved better. At least we’ve got the TV show.
Words: Ana Hine