I think it’s fair to say Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has entered the canon of dystopian fiction. Perpetually re-printed, taught in schools, filmed as a tv series, and mentioned in similar breaths to Nineteen Eighty-four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and the like, it’s a story that hasn’t faded—and likely won’t any time soon given the political climate as of 2019. Which, if I had to guess, is the reason why Atwood chose to revisit the setting with this year’s The Testaments.
A risk on Atwood’s part, it’s not common that a writer produces such a work as The Handmaid’s Tale, and then decades later revisits the scene. Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury did not return to their worlds. The closest relative I can think of is Le Guin returning to Earthsea after a mult-decade break with Tehanu—a novel that, while its intentions can be clearly scene, pushes an agenda in a very forced manner, something which Atwood likewise runs the risk of doing.
But The Testaments, while occasionally heavy-handed, is fully complementary. Readers can pick up the first novel then move to The Testaments and not feel Atwood is simply looking to cash in on an earlier success in the way a lot of writers are wont to do. Thematically, dramatically, and compositionally, The Testaments is wholly consistent, while adding something worthwhile to the setting.
As the title indicates, the novel takes in more than one view. Offred’s story told, Atwood looks to a time after, and hones in on three viewpoint characters. Aunt Lydia is the sour, rigid master of the Aunts—the women who implement the wishes of the Eye in Gilead. At first a hard old hen, readers gradually warm to her story once its soft interior is exposed. The second is a sixteen year old girl living outside Gilead. Her parentage a question mark, she lives with couple who own a second-hand clothes shop, living a normal teenager’s life, that is, until it all comes crashing down. And thirdly is a thirteen year-old girl in Gilead, being groomed in the home of an officer to someday be a wife. Getting her first period means a lot of changes, most notably that she moves from the relative innocence of girlhood into becoming a potential wife. Her heart’s desire anything but aligned with the wishes of Gilead, her story is the edge upon which the novel’s success hinges.
So what new does The Testaments bring to the table? How does Atwood add to, recontextualize, or perhaps even revision the first novel? The answer is: very little. The Testaments, as Atwood herself states in the afterword, is largely the story which describes the downfall—or at least the beginning of the downfall—of Gielad hinted at in The Handmaid’s Tale. To be fair, the novel is also a timely one in the sense that what is happening in the US at the moment is only closer to the dystopia of Gilead—the three decades between the novels not enough to distance the two.
For those who have read any of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake novels, The Testaments will feel similar in technique, even as the setting and characters are very different. Atwood effectively shifting between viewpoints, generating momentum and interest as each gains identity and purpose, the reader easily invests themselves with little contrived drama not inherent to the setting established in A Handmaid’s Tale. For readers who wanted more, Atwood gives them more, but not in cheap sequel fashion.
And the focus, naturally, remains on human rights. I say human rights not women’s rights, as while women and the injustices done to them are front and center, it’s also quite clear that Atwood’s approach is broader in aim when the subtler details are placed alongside the philosophies certain characters highlight.
And so, to go back to the introduction: has Atwood depreciated or undermined the value of The Handmaid’s Tale by revisiting the setting? I would argue not. While Atwood adds nothing new to the scene—as many writers of genre are wont to do when writing a sequel, instead she puts to use excellent plotting and characterization to tell a very engaging story. It may not add thematically to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it certainly enforces the ideas—something which, in today’s USA, is something to once again pay attention to and wonder what direction the nation is moving. This will not be my book of 2019, but it is certainly well-well worth reading, and for readers who enjoyed A Handmaid’s Tale, I would say a must.