The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t yet read The Testaments and intend to, be warned that my review may contain details of the story that you might prefer to discover for yourself.
The story begins about fifteen years after Offred, whose narration made up The Handmaid’s Tale, tried to escape Gilead. In The Testaments the story is told by three narrators, Aunt Lydia, who also appeared in The Handmaid’s Tale, Daisy, a teenage girl living in Canada and Agnes, the teenage daughter of a high-ranking Commander in Gilead. At the time Gilead and Canada were fighting over possession of Baby Nicole, an infant who had been smuggled out of Gilead many years ago.
Aunt Lydia’s story surprised me most. In The Handmaid’s Tale, she was the most powerful and feared of the Aunts, whose role it was to train the handmaids. The Testaments explains her background in her own words. Before the onset of the regime which caused her to lose all of her rights she was a respected judge. Along with other women of her age, education and status she was imprisoned and treated in a dehumanising manner before being given the opportunity to become an Aunt in Gilead, the only position a woman could hold and keep some autonomy over her own life in the new regime.
In contrast, Agnes had been born in Gilead and knew of no other way of life. She had a loving relationship with her adoptive mother but was thrown adrift after her death. When Agnes’ adoptive father remarried, his new wife had no affection for Agnes and brokered a deal for Agnes to marry the highest ranking Commander in the regime. Marriage to Commander Judd would have brought enormous prestige for Agnes and her family but was not without risk for Agnes as Commander Judd had previously married several very young women who had later died in mysterious circumstances. Surprisingly, it was Aunt Lydia who came to Agnes’ rescue by suggesting that the girl had a vocation to become an Aunt, which over-rode the marriage plans.
In Canada, Daisy was growing up in a way most girls in a contemporary Western world would recognise. Daisy studied Gilead’s current affairs in school but was unaware that her adoptive parents were involved in Mayday, an organisation that smuggled women out of Gilead. After her parents were murdered Daisy was smuggled away by Mayday operatives who told her she was Baby Nicole and as such had been hidden from the government of Gilead who were demanding her return.
The Mayday operatives convinced Daisy to return to Gilead as a spy. They taught her to fight and gave her some tips on how to manage, then sent her off as a convert to the regime while keeping her identity as Baby Nicole secret. When she arrived in Gilead, Aunt Lydia took Daisy under her wing and tasked Agnes with looking after her.
Aunt Lydia is by far the strongest character in this story and I would have liked to read more of her story and less about Agnes and Daisy, although their stories were vital to the plot.
For anyone wondering what happened to Offred after her attempted escape and what caused Gilead to fall, The Testaments has the answer. Most of the loose ends were tied up, possibly a little too neatly. The story is also enormously entertaining but for me it didn’t have the emotional punch of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was of course an extremely hard act to follow.