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The Handmaids walk among us: Margaret Atwood's The Testaments review

Over three decades later, Atwood's long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, has finally reached bookshops across the world, taking the literary sphere and readers everywhere by storm.

By Ruth Jones, Third Year English

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale was first released in 1985. Now, more than three decades later, Atwood's long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, has finally reached bookshops across the world, taking the literary sphere and readers everywhere by storm.

*WARNING: This review contains references to sexual assault and major spoilers*

Foyles bookshop / Livi Player

The Handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s fiction now walk among us. They have left the pages of her novels and are strolling within our reality, becoming a common sight at protests all over the world. Her Handmaid’s outfit has become fashion shorthand for 'get your hands off my rights'.

Illustration by Harry Sullivan 

It was a perfect storm in 2017 when the surge in governments hell bent on female persecution (looking at you, Trump) played out on our television screens alongside the Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s novel. Indeed, the stories which populated our news feeds uncannily echoed the stories which Atwood had told a couple decades earlier. These are the stories of women such as Evelyn Beatriz Henández Cruz from El Salvador. She was initially sentenced to thirty years in prison for aggravated homicide after suffering a stillbirth - she had been raped during her first year of college, but did not realise that she had become pregnant. Regardless, she was swiftly arrested. Our reality was eerily mirrored by the happenings of The Handmaid’s Tale.

It is the original novel’s enduring prescience which made it so remarkable in 1985, and saw its sales increasing by 200 percent after the 2016 presidential election. Atwood's irresistibly compelling ability to blur together the fiction of Gilead with our political history and everyday lives is what made and continues to make The Handmaid's Tale such a queasy read. The Testaments, however, is radically different to the original. While the first book appeared as a cautionary tale amidst our bleak contemporary reality, Atwood instead produces a tale of hope in her second novel. She has finally given us the story of the fall of Gilead. Instead of the original single perspective of Offred, we now trace the tales of three women's perspectives. We follow the misdeeds and plotting of Aunt Lydia, a young girl living in Gilead named Agnes, and a third girl, originally born within Gilead, who was smuggled out of as a baby and brought up as ‘Daisy’ by two Mayday operatives in Canada.

While in The Handmaid’s Tale the Gilead society derives its power from its abstract nature - it terrifyingly seems to have risen out of nowhere - in The Testaments, Atwood examines the hatred and fear which gave rise to such a state. She shines a torchlight on the monster she created years ago, a monster which has lurked under the beds of her female readers for years, and interestingly, reduces it through revelation in Aunt Lydia’s account of its creation. The Gilead state is therefore not what it once was, but the reduction of its horrifying power does not reduce the impact of The Testaments in any way. Instead of the power of the state, Atwood now examines the power of women. This manifests itself at its most frivolous within the novel in moments such as vindictive Aunt Vidala being sucker punched in the heart by Daisy, a fist-pump-the-air moment of joy.

However, Atwood does not stray far from her greatest strength; her descriptions of grotesque abuses of power. Agnes’ examination by the paedophilic dentist Dr. Grove and his horrendous assault on her is repulsive in its details: Atwood notes that he lays his hand on her breast like a ‘large hot crab.’ The introduction and subsequent death of the handmaid Ofkyle, who is described as ‘blank, like a gloved thumbprint,’ is equally appalling. Moreover, the little girls who aren’t allowed to play on swings for fear that the wind may cause their skirts to rise above their ankles, a far cry from modern culture’s evocation of Marilyn-esque sexuality, powerfully communicates Gilead’s warped paranoia.

Of the three narratives in the novel, it is that which follows Agnes which is perhaps executed most successfully. Its emotionally complicated narrative, a mixture of instinctive repulsion toward the repeated acts of violence against women, a series of powerful instances of oppression, and Agnes complicated loyalty towards Gilead, her home, creates soaring catharsis. The presence of her friend Becka is of particular poignance and importance, with the image of her statue, erected as testament to her kindness and bravery by Agnes and Daisy, functioning as the most beautifully moving moment of the novel.

Ultimately, The Testaments is a wonderfully powerful account of the love of sisterhood and provides an emotive and powerful conclusion to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian nightmare.

Featured image credit: Harry Sullivan

Have you read The Testaments yet? Let us know your thoughts!