The Handmaid’s Tale is everything you would expect from the dystopian genre. It is at once spare and low-key and at the same time terrifying. It is a beautifully written piece of literature, sufficient to itself, leaving the reader with ambiguity about the fate of the individual characters but with a satisfyingly clear picture of the narrow and punitive theocratic world it depicts.
I was, therefore, quite ambivalent about a sequel, especially one coming out 30 years later and after the equally dynamic and engaging (although horrifying) visual depiction of the Hulu television series.
The publishers amped up anticipation for this book by making some promises:
“In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades. When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death. With The Testaments, the wait is over.”
For the most part, I would say that these promises are not kept. Offred is not present in this book, except for some oblique references by people who don’t know her. Neither the beginnings nor the ending of Gilead are sufficiently detailed as to give the reader significant new insights into the rise and fall of this so-called religious obscenity of a government, although the theme of fascism—and the fact that it’s the low-level enablers who keep the system going, and not necessarily those at the top—is well documented. Apart from acknowledging that there is a resistance, and noting some of the actions of individual members, there is no cohesive picture of how it began, who is in it or runs it, or how they operate, beyond a few specific examples that still leave you wondering about the organization as a whole. If you have watched the television show, then you are unsurprised by the venality and corruption of the leaders of the republic, and even if you have not, if you are an astute reader with an imagination, you could easily extrapolate.
As far as the objective quality of the book and the story, I was disappointed to some extent. This book doesn’t speak with the same voice, take the same tone, or carry the same weight as the original. It reads more like a mainstream, action-driven novel, highly accessible, and thus may appeal to more readers. But it also suffers from something I doubt Atwood anticipated: The fact that two of the three narrators are young girls gives it a quality of immaturity that makes the book occasionally come off like a well written Young Adult novel. You can’t fault the writer for this, since the truth of Gilead is that they raise ’em “right” and push them into their roles as women while they are still barely nubile girls, so that there is less chance of self-awareness or rebellion. But the result for the narrative is that the girls occasionally present as typical whiney teenagers, which sometimes doesn’t seem right for the context. Furthermore, because one girl’s point of view is from the comparatively privileged space of a Commander’s daughter while the other’s is as an outsider raised in Canada, neither the narrative nor the sense of the plight of the women so ill-used by the hierarchy—the Handmaids, the Marthas, the Jezebels—is nearly as dramatic. Despite some sacrifices, the girls are more focused on self-interest and their personal lives than on the big picture of bringing down the government.
The saving grace of the novel is the third narrator, the nefarious Aunt Lydia who has become so prominent a figure in the Hulu series. Most of the material written from her perspective does give the promised insights into the underpinnings and back-door deals of the corrupt government underlying Gilead’s sanctity, and the two-faced, manipulative, passive-aggressive way she goes about achieving her objectives is positively Machiavellian, as is the long game she is playing. Her portion of the novel is truly a delight, but can’t quite carry the rest. I also disliked the ending.
My reaction, upon turning the last page, was to feel a little flat. I subconsciously expected lyrically written prose with a subtle plot, some substantial heroines, and a more revealing take on the Republic of Gilead. Instead, I discovered a fairly straightforward, occasionally witty thriller that gave me a bit more information, and added somewhat to social commentary. Perhaps that will be enough, or even preferable, for some readers. You will have to judge for yourself.