Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is an essential, moving thriller
Her name is not mentioned and she doesn’t figure into the plot, but Offred looms over The Testaments like a legend. More than 30 years ago, author Margaret Atwood capped The Handmaid’s Tale with a gut-punch, revealing Offred’s story would be lost to — and shaped by — powerful men long after Gilead’s fall. The last detail we knew of her life was that she got into a van, pregnant and harboring secrets, awaiting either freedom or doom. Did she survive? Die? Stay in Gilead? Flee to Canada? No firm answer. But here Atwood returns with a sequel decades in the making, arriving at a time in which The Handmaid’s Tale has reclaimed its cultural immediacy. Perhaps that’s why Atwood skirts around questions of her old heroine’s fate with the glee of a writer who knows she has her reader in the palm of her hand. Who can blame her for not playing fair? She gets to show off a little.
Of course, we’ve also got an ongoing TV show to consider. It’s why The Testaments’ publication has been subject to much speculation. The original Handmaid’s Tale book ended roughly where the first season of Hulu’s adaptation ended, but the TV series has pressed on — advancing the story of Offred (known in the show as June) as she gave birth to her second daughter, Nicole; smuggled Nicole out of Gilead; and became an activist for the Mayday terrorist group. (The fourth season will premiere in 2020.) But when Atwood’s sequel was first announced late last year, its publisher made clear: “The Testaments is not connected to the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.”
While the events of Hulu’s adaptation and The Testaments may never align — for starters, the latter is set over a decade beyond where the show is — the claim seems, at the very least, misleading. Atwood builds on key events from the series in the construction of her follow-up — specifically, the foundation that June has laid for the fall of Gilead.
The book is alternately narrated by a newly traitorous Aunt Lydia, in a series of diary entries dubbed “The Ardua Hall Holograph,” and June’s two daughters, introduced here as Agnes and Daisy, in chapters ambiguously dubbed “witness transcripts.” Unbeknownst to the girl herself, Daisy is really Nicole, living with her “parents” in Canada; Agnes, who’d gone unnamed in the original novel, is in Gilead. (Her name, like Nicole’s, was previously, exclusively revealed in the TV show.)
Logistics and seeming universe-overlapping aside: There may be no novelist better suited to tapping the current era’s anxieties than Margaret Atwood. It’s why The Handmaid’s Tale, utterly nightmarish in its depiction of a dictatorship’s origins, became a No. 1 best-seller 30 years after its publication. And it’s why The Testaments, too, hums with such urgency. In the sequel, Atwood focuses on how tyrannical regimes destroy themselves. Her command of these mechanisms is, unsurprisingly, astonishing. Just as she knew how to build fiction’s most terrifyingly realistic government takeover, she knows how to tear it down.
Atwood does chart Gilead’s rise again, though, albeit from a fresh perspective. Lydia’s secret entries veer between espionage thriller and mournful recollection; she addresses us, her readers, describing how she, despite her initial horror, came to join the bad guys and amass remarkable influence. (In the 15 years since The Handmaid’s Tale’s events, she’s become a revered figure in Gilead, her picture hung in classrooms and a statue erected in her image.) “I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it — formless, shape-shifting,” she writes. “How can I regain myself? How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?”
Atwood is fascinated by the erosion of the ordinary — a timely theme, certainly. Offred, strikingly ordinary in Handmaid’s, exists now as an unnamed myth; Lydia, a respected judge in her pre-Gilead life, serves as an instrument for evil. The contrasts The Testaments draws within Gilead are exceedingly blunt. Everyone who appears here is either monstrous — most of the men in this book are even worse than those of Handmaid’s — or heroic, aiding in ways big and small to the pursuit of justice.
The exceptions are Agnes and Nicole. In their sections, they reflect on their lives, zeroing in on the period of apparent interest (when the former was in her early 20s, and the latter was 16), with the naiveté of young adults who have no reason to know better. Agnes particularly presents a challenge for Atwood: Unlike Offred or Lydia or even Nicole, she grew up with Gilead’s teachings. Thus they’re imbued into her perspective. As an Aunt instructs her: “A rebellious woman was worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”
Atwood deftly balances her three narrators as her plot hurtles forward, but her characterization is lacking. Both Agnes and Nicole learn in the book’s first third that the people they believed to be their parents are not related to them — and that their actual mother is a great mystery. These are staggering discoveries; in spite of the first-person narratives, we don’t get inside their traumatic impact. Agnes, at least, has the Gilead factor to explain why. Atwood details her simmering rage as her wicked stepmother mentally tortures her, planning to marry her off to a vile older Commander when she’s just 13; she begins viewing Gilead’s practices with conflicted horror. But Nicole is elusive. After her stand-in parents — a discerning reader might identify them as Moira and Luke — are killed in the first of the book’s many tantalizing twists, she learns her true identity and is thrust into the heart of Mayday’s Canada operation. It’s all very speedy but emotionally inert, Atwood lining up her pieces at the expense of a more rigorous engagement with interior experience.
Conversely, you can sense Atwood’s elation and comfort in writing for Lydia, bringing her centerstage after her one-note villainy in Offred’s telling. Lydia writes her entries at Gilead’s illustrious Ardua Hall, which evolves into the grand stage for this novel, and they feel at once tense, sad, and brilliantly knowing, styled in her distinct cadences. (“Think of me as a guide. Think of yourself as a wanderer in a dark wood. It’s about to get darker.”) Lydia keeps hidden an exhaustive stash of the corruption within Gilead; the sheer scale of it proves the whole system is rotting, which is what motivates her to rebel in ways that very gradually, very intricately reveal themselves.
Her journey isn’t redemptive, exactly — Atwood is no moralist — but it feels right as a complement to Offred’s. The pair ran in morally and functionally opposite directions upon Gilead’s uprising. In The Testaments, as Lydia edges away from the “dark” she’d initially embraced, the pair implicity meet at a midpoint of radicalization. “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask,” she writes in her final section. “You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself will never have had to.”
There’s that notion of ordinariness again. With surgical clarity, Atwood documents how the stripping of fundamental freedoms, the weight of systemic oppression, pushes individuals to extremes. Agnes and Nicole knew nothing of a higher calling; they led what looked, to them, like ordinary lives. But they’re soon tasked to live up to their mother’s legacy, to fight back. Their arcs eventually converge, first with Lydia’s and then with each other’s, movingly if contrived; the finale is executed with nail-biting precision. How long has Atwood had this book in her? The pacing is flawless. The prose is lean, mean, and charged. Finally, in an epilogue placed in conversation with The Handmaid’s Tale’s dispiriting final pages, Atwood pays stirring — and corrective — tribute to Offred’s spirit, finding a subtle but breathtaking grace note: History may favor the powerful, but it cannot ignore the resilient. B+