When Margaret Atwood announced late last year that she was writing a sequel to her bestselling 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the few details she let drop was that the new book is partly inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” She was referring, one expects, to the retrograde political environment that has taken hold in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe, trampling women’s rights and turning minorities and immigrants into vilified outsiders in many quarters. Recalling events closer to home, however, it might be tempting to suggest that Atwood’s novel is as much a response to the author’s recent engagement with critics online around the subject of sexual politics.
It is not hard, in that context, to hear the author’s own voice coming through the words of Aunt Lydia, one of the three narrators in The Testaments: “I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if, that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was.” It is equally difficult not to be somewhat startled to encounter what is certain to become one of the new novel’s most controversial moments: the scene in which a male character is torn apart by an angry mob of women as a result of another woman’s false rape allegation.
The character in the novel is undeniably guilty: he is a dentist who sexually assaults his underage female patients, among other, equally hideous crimes. But he is innocent of the charge on which he is tried, convicted, and executed. When he protests his innocence of the accusation brought against him, Aunt Lydia has this to say: “Innocent men denying their guilt sound exactly like guilty men, as I’m sure you have noticed, my reader. Listeners are inclined to believe neither.” Later, one of the Commanders – the patriarchal leaders of the totalitarian Gilead regime – laments to Aunt Lydia that the dead man was a good dentist. “Yes,” she replies. “But sins must not be overlooked simply because the sinner is skilled.”
What the novel seems to be addressing here is the sticky matter of what constitutes justice. Is it permissible for a society to convict someone of a crime of which the person is innocent if they have knowledge of other crimes that have gone unpunished? These are questions that are very much front and centre in the novel, which also addresses the matter of collusion via the character of Aunt Lydia. Consigned mostly to the background in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she appeared as an unreconstructed villain, Aunt Lydia is here provided a backstory and an explanation for how she fell under the sway of the regime. As someone who recognizes her guilt in colluding with an intolerant theocracy in order to save herself and gain advancement, she surreptitiously pens a series of samizdat confessions, which she hides in a copy of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (a sly dig on Atwood’s part).
The balance of the novel is split between two characters: Daisy, a 16-year-old living in Toronto, and Agnes, nine years older and on track to become a Wife in Gilead. These stories are also narrated in retrospect, as transcripts of witness testimonies regarding life in Gilead and the guerrilla resistance movement dedicated to bringing the society down. (This latter involves the reappearance of the “Underground Femaleroad,” a trope from The Handmaid’s Tale that awkwardly reconstitutes a significant aspect of the Black slave experience.)
Naturally, these stories come together, and both intersect with Aunt Lydia, by way of a propulsive narrative that owes more than a little to the drive and momentum found in the wildly popular television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. If the earlier book was a dystopian allegory, The Testaments more closely resembles a thriller, complete with multiple plot twists, double- and triple-crosses, and a daring escape from captivity by car and boat. The languorous pace of The Handmaid’s Tale is jettisoned in favour of a narrative that races from one event to the next, driving the reader forward by the sheer force of the storytelling. What gets lost in this transaction is the careful attention to metaphor that infused the first book: there is nothing in The Testaments to compare, for example, to the extended symbolism of eyes and seeing that ran throughout the earlier novel.
What Atwood has produced, then, is a work that is sure to change nobody’s mind: it will delight her fans and annoy her detractors. But for better or worse, it shows that the author has lost none of her willingness to provoke. In the final pages, Aunt Lydia writes, “if you don’t accuse me of bad faith I will be astonished.” The novel’s title is plural, referring to the accounts of Aunt Lydia, Daisy, and Agnes. But there is another, equally significant, testament on offer here: that of Atwood herself, in all its accusation and astonishment.