Last week Margaret Atwood’s long awaited The Testaments was released. I have been looking forward to the release of this book since its announcement. In year 12, my English Studies teacher set The Handmaid’s Tale as a compulsory read for a comparative essay. We had to write about the dystopian society of Gilead and compare it to that of Blade Runner, you don’t care about that and I understand – but this is providing you with some context. You see, year 12 was a busy time for me with the emotional turmoil, breakdowns, secret underage drinking and pressure of my entire bloody future being shaped by this single year, so I didn’t always put as much effort into the subjects I knew I was decent at. If you haven’t yet figured it out: I was decent at English, and so instead of reading the entire novel I read SparkNotes and corresponding pages/chapters to write my essay. This is a good opportunity to emphasise that if you are in high school I do not recommend this method at all, not only will you sell yourself short and miss key things in not reading the books properly, you might miss out on a book that will one day become one of your all-time favourites.
Knowledge is power. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.
A year later, once I’d suppressed the trauma of year 12 deep within myself in a locked box and had thrown the key away, I sat down and re-read The Handmaid’s Tale. All of it, cover to cover. Then I read it again. Despite the highlighting and notes scribbled throughout it from year 12, the book was incredible. Despite being written in 1985 there was eerie feel to the events of the book. The gravity, and serious element, of this society of Gilead was not lost to me. I could see the comparative elements of this fictional world and the world that I was living in, the decrease in birth rates and focus of careers and life from the millennials was a topic of conversation for older generations. I’d heard conversations in coffee shops about how selfish millennials were for wanting to build successful careers and travel over having a family. I’d read placards at Pride and anti-gay marriage protests that sex was for procreation and that should be the focus.
In 2016 Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, sales spiked of The Handmaid’s Tale and comparisons were drawn between the misogynistic society of Gilead and comments that had been said by Mr. President (‘Grab her by the pussy,” anyone?). The increase in popularity of the book saw it turned into a T.V series, as I watched the Hulu adaptation of the series, I saw what had been done. Suddenly, Gilead was not a society created in 1985, Gilead was a modern society created in the modern day. I heard conversation sitting on milk crates behind my work building where people were shocked at how realistic the series was. It was believable, you could really see this happening, it was scary, these women lost all bodily autonomy, they were nothing but baby making vessels and a child that hadn’t even been conceived yet was more important that living, breathing women. I re-read the novel as I awaited the second season, again finding new things and becoming more aware of the reality around me. The series is now past its fourth season and has expanded well past Queen Margaret’s original novel (I’m still not sure how I feel about some of the expansions). The story has been adapted in many ways, and when abortion was made illegal in the United States this year the republic of Gilead no longer seemed like a far-away, fictional dystopia. It was beginning to sound like a real possibility.
So, was it a coincidence that The Testaments was announced for release this year? Was Queen Margaret taking advantage of the popularity and hype of The Handmaid’s Tale? Was she making a political point? I’m not sure, we’ve not caught up for tea and scones for a while now… I imagine she’s been quite busy with the release and so I’m not holding it against her that I haven’t received my invitation yet. My excitement was the same level that it once was pending the final Harry Potter book release, so excited was I that I pre-ordered the book. With that being said you can imagine my frustration when I received the book and had no time to myself to sit down and take in the literary genius concealed between the covers of this book. Mum pointed out that I’d waited years for this and a few days more wouldn’t hurt me… and yes mother, technically you are right, but I did my waiting, five years of it, in Azkaban (or Adelaide). Never fear though, over the past couple of days I set aside twenty hours to dedicate solely to the masterpiece that was in my hot little hands. Did I need the twenty hours to read it? Most definitely not. As it turns out, I needed the extra time to process what I had just read.
The Testaments was compelling, I chuckled, I gasped, I cursed under my breath. As stated to numerous people who I’ve seen since, it was fucking wild in so many ways. Returning to Gilead in the form of three separate accounts, Atwood revisits one of the most conflicting characters that I’ve come across throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia, senior figure, superior bitch, trainer of the handmaid’s, questionable ally of the resistance? From original novel, to TV adaptation, to The Testaments, Aunt Lydia has remained a mystery to me. Every time I begin to think I may like her; she reminds me that she is one of the piles of shit that run Gilead. As you immerse yourself in the world of Gilead, it’s easy to forget that this was not always a dystopian society and was once plain old America. The Testaments delves into Aunt Lydia’s past, how she became Aunty Lydia, why she became Aunt Lydia. Suddenly, she is cheeky, quick witted and clever. She is… funny? I know, it made me want to punch myself in the face as well. As I continued on through the pages of this book I found myself questioning and ultimately deciding for myself, was Aunt Lydia truly bad?
Aside from Aunt Lydia, The Testaments also includes two other accounts of what happened in Gilead. Exploring the shift in attitudes from The Handmaid’s Tale, the youth of Gilead no longer lived in the world before. There is no before for them. No outside world. There’s dismay at the happenings, not anger like there once was, but at the political choices being made. Loopholes for divorce, which is illegal, and inability to persecute men for their wrong doings. Women are sacred and valued but only when operating within Gilead’s gender specific roles. The Testaments explores the world of the Aunt’s, their special privileges, and also the operation of Mayday, a rebellion organisation operating within and outside of Gilead from the beginning.
I like to guess things when I start reading novels, I make predictions, because I get a solid adrenaline rush from being right. Those who narrate the significant portion of The Testaments are not initially named, but you find out who they are. You uncover the truth page by page. If you’re going to read The Testaments, I urge you to read The Handmaid’s Tale first if you have not already, read it again if it has been some time since you last did so. You might find that some of the questions you have at the end of it will be answered in The Testaments, and some may not.
I know that Queen Margaret will not write a third part to this, but despite my mind telling me not to, my heart is urging me to beg her to write one. I know what I’d want it to cover, so maybe when we finally sit down for our long overdue catch up with tea and scones and talk about existentialism, the possibility of our world becoming an apocalyptic dystopia, and this two-part series, I will beg. Surely, she’ll find that endearing and realise that I’m just a sad girl who needs light at the end of this dark, empty tunnel that is the end of The Testaments. Or perhaps she’ll just find it sad and pathetic.
Either way, 10/10.
Let me know what you think of the book once you’ve read it… what are your predictions? Are they right? Did you find the closure you sought from The Testaments? Would you like to see a third instalment? What would you want it to cover?