Margaret Atwood’s newest novel, The Testaments follows up on the story told in The Handmaid’s Tale. A fictional state called Gilead exists where women are persecuted for the freedoms they enjoyed and stripped of those rights – the right to choose one’s own profession, mates, or whether they will have children being some of them. In The Testament, we get a little more of a perspective of how the administration is run, how the patriarchy has recruited women who used to have powerful roles in society and established them in levels of hierarchy over other women so that they are forced to battle against each other and sell out each other in order to survive.
Within the society, there are Aunts who run the administration, run the schools and also function as liaisons with the male leaders or Commanders. The Commanders have Wives who enjoy some privileges based on their husband’s rank but they are subject to the whims of the Commanders who seem to dispose of them in favor of newer, younger wives with frequency. The job of the Wife is to bear children and if she is unable, a Handmaid will be sent to the household to perform the surrogate role and whatever children she is able to bear, will become the wives property. However most of that we know from the Handmaid’s Tale. The revelation in this novel is that despite the closed boundaries, some people have escaped Gilead and taken refuge in neighboring Canada and become part of an underground system to help funnel others out of the nightmarish society. As such, Gilead now has Pearl Girls (Aunts-in-training) who are frequently sent to Canada to recruit young women.
That’s the back story. The plot of the novel is that a young girl was smuggled out and Gilead has made a public demand for her return. Even in Canada, schoolchildren study this case as a part of their coursework. While the girl has been hidden for years, her cover has finally been blown and her protectors executed, leaving her vulnerable to being returned to Gilead. The Testaments is told from 3 perspectives, one being an older woman, a high-ranking Aunt who is publicly performing her duties but rebelling in secret and recording her deeds in a journal. The second is a teenage girl within Gilead who is being groomed for marriage to a Commander. The final testimony is being given by a girl in Canada who eventually makes her way to Gilead smuggling in secrets from the resistance that they hope will blow Gilead’s structure apart.
The story has potential for interest but it moves at a barely-there pace and nothing about the writing really sparkles. The introduction and disposal of characters along the plot feel so convenient that it reads almost like a draft that intimates what is happening without really giving the reader anything to create an emotional buildup. Oftentimes, the characters’ actions felt forced, their motives not expressly communicated with the reader, except that other characters would, in reflection, say what they must have been thinking. Without ripping into this novel, I would say that I read the story for information but failed to develop an emotional connection that more multi-dimensional characters and more refined prose would have generated.
- Title: The Testaments
- Author: Margaret Atwood
- Format: Hardcover
- Pages: 414
- Publisher: Nan E. Talese
- Publication Date: September 10, 2019
As a commentary on the society and the present legislation in the United States that seek to limit women’s reproductive rights, this is a timely subject to be discussed. However, I think that while this novel might spark a conversation about the possibility of a real-life Gilead, the fictional one was not as successfully represented within these pages. Last night, Atwood’s The Testaments was one of the two winners of this year’s Booker prize (shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other which I will read and review later)
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