Is it possible to compose a satisfying sequel to a novel that’s become a modern classic? That’s a challenge in itself, but the difficulty goes up exponentially if said novel has also been turned into a blockbuster TV series.
In her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which outlined a near future in which women’s freedom had been completely curtailed, celebrated Canadian writer Margaret Atwood leaps these hurdles with Olympian ease. The Testaments is a crowd-pleasing page turner. Atwood leans in to the attractions of both her original novel, with its Scheherazade-style narration, and the TV series, with its resistance-minded heroine.
The Testaments is told in the first person by three narrators, allowing for a more panoramic view of Gilead than the cloistered Handmaid Offred could provide. The voice that flows with the most relish from Atwood’s pen, and that will be the most familiar to readers, is the Machiavellian Aunt Lydia. In Gilead’s patriarchal society, which categorizes women according to their function (Handmaids, for example, exist solely to bear children), Aunts are responsible for enforcing these roles. As a privileged member of an oppressed class, Aunt Lydia makes every decision with maintaining her status in mind.
The other two narrators are young girls: one raised within Gilead’s walls by a powerful Commander and his wife, and the other raised in Canada as the child of Mayday resistance operatives. As their stories unfold, it becomes clear that the power to bring Gilead down may be in their hands.
If a book must be groundbreaking to be a true classic, The Testaments can’t be ranked alongside its predecessor. Today, the divide between genre and literary fiction is more porous, and dystopian fiction is an established genre—in large part thanks to novels like The Handmaid’s Tale. But just as The Handmaid’s Tale was a response to the backlash against the women’s movements of the 1970s, The Testaments is equally of its time, drawing from contemporary politics in ways that resonate. Atwood remains a keen chronicler of power and the way status (or lack thereof) affects how it is leveraged, and seeing her explore that issue in Gilead once again is a pleasure.