Into the Town Halls of Literary Greatness
Without a doubt, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has earned its right as one of the most recognized titles in the world of literature. Readers are entranced to a world where women have lost their ability to bear children. However, the women of Gilead lost more than their ability for childbearing. The voices and rights of women were stymied by the autocratic regime of the Republic. But still, hope springs eternal and through Offred’s story, all is not lost. What does the future hold for the women of Gilead?
Fifteen years thence, the atrocious Gilead regime has strengthened its stranglehold on on power. It has successfully stymied challenges from outside its walls. However, there are individuals within the regime who are not resting their laurels, longing for the day when Gilead’s abysmal leaders will finally be overthrown. At this seminal juncture when the regime is showing cracks, three women’s fates have converged. Each has her own story but are all indelibly bonded by a past that is moving forward to a different future.
At the helm of Ardua Hall is the domineering Aunt Lydia. Winnowed from a group of women, she was tasked by the Commanders of Gilead to spearhead and overlook Gilead’s group of women. Agnes grew up in the privileged household of a ranking commander. She had everything but things changed, and her future suddenly becomes bleak. Across Gilead, in Canada, Daisy grew up believing she is a normal Canadian girl; it could not be further from the truth. As these three women converge at the crossroads, how will their unlikely assembly change the course of Gilead’s history?
“The adult female body was one big booby trap as far as I could tell. If there was a hole, something was bound to be shoved into it and something else was bound to come out, and that went for any kind of hole: a hole in the wall, a hole in a mountain, a hole in the ground. There were so many things that could be done to it or go wrong with it. This adult female body, that I was left feeling I would be better without it.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
In late 2018, famed Canadian author Margaret Atwood announced a sequel to her literary masterpiece, The Handmaid’s Tale. The surprising yet welcome news brought everyone on their collective toes. Atwood’s devout followers are excited of what happens to Offred and to Gilead next. There are also some who are curious of what Atwood has in store. Suffice it to say, everyone was looking forward to the development of Offred’s story.
Margaret Atwood proved yet again her mettle as a master storyteller, waving her proverbial literary wand, and transporting her readers into a magical world that only Atwood can. Her hefty literary influence was in full throttle in a strikingly dissimilar manner from its popular predecessor.
The digression from its antecedent makes The Testaments step out of the shadows of The Handmaid’s Tale. The tone stark dichotomy in the story, in the voice of the story and in its literary structure make The Testaments a distinct literary experience. The Handmaid’s Tale possessed a power and a literary impact that is difficult to replicate or at least, to recapture. Atwood maybe right in this deviation. To try and recapture the same power and gravitas would hamper the new book’s relevance. However, for readers who’ve been devout followers of The Handmaid’s Tale, it is difficult not to view each book separately.
“Only in heaven, I thought. And this is not heaven. This is a place of snakes and ladders, and though I was once high up on a ladder propped against the tree of life, now I’ve slid down a snake. How gratifying for the others to witness my fall.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
There is a subtle brilliance to the manner Atwood addresses all kinds of current issues. The publication of The Testaments is timely and relevant, especially in the era of the #MeToo movement. Hemmed in the majestic tapestry are subtle references to the misogyny of the current US president and the proclivities of men in power to abuse their powers. The novel also highlighted the threats of terrorism, the refugee crisis and even xenophobia. Just like its predecessor, The Testaments is also filled with a bevy of feminist theme.
There were differences between the primary characters in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testament and their representations. Whilst Offred portrayed powerlessness, the women of The Testaments are the personification of fighting back against the system. Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Daisy refused to accept the unacceptable. They refused to have their voices be stymied and by speaking up, they fought against the injustice. Through these three characters, change is still possible in a world that has been distorted by impish minds and ideologies. Oppression will meet its end if you are brave enough to do your part.
Whilst The Handmaid’s Tale relied on Offred’s singular but diaphanous narration, The Testaments was related by three differing perspectives. The alternating point of views made it difficult sustaining one’s interest. It was Aunt Lydia’s character that keeps one riveted. There is a complexity and depth to her that keeps the readers intrigued. The other main characters, on the other hand, felt like the product of an attempt to move within the young adult trope. They were underdeveloped, bland and one-dimensional.
It is barely noticeable but the storytelling of The Testaments is a fusion between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin. Elements of Atwood’s knack for writing is stamped all over the narrative. The timelessness of her narrative is breathtaking. It draws the reader into the turmoils of Gilead and the struggles of its denizens. Her imagination is wild and vivid at the same time, and it was well translated into her stories, into the stories of her characters.
“Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both.” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Testaments
The Testaments draws the reader back to the fictional world of Gilead and its oppressive regime. Where one expects reverberations of Offred’s story, one is met by a resounding silence. To everyone wishing for a part two to Offred’s story, The Testaments could end up a dampener. But as the dust settles, a new realization crystallizes; neither The Handmaid’s Tale nor The Testaments was solely Offred’s story. On a universal picture, portrayed within these two books are the harrowing stories of women caught in oppressive and patriarchal regimes. It is this advocacy that makes both narrative shine through.
What sets The Testaments apart from its antecedent is its commercial tone. The way the characters intersected reeked of being too TV-ready; it felt too predictable and rehearsed. Overall, there was an odd sense of artifice that hovered above the narrative. It lacked the sense of purposefulness, surprise and shock that The Handmaid’s Tale possessed. Nevertheless, it was an interesting read but pales in comparison to the greatness of its predecessor.
The Testaments is both an overwhelming and underwhelming story. Atwood’s writing is truly a thing of beauty. Her unconventional approach to challenging the norms of literature is a marvel. Streaks of this brilliance were showcased in The Testaments. However, it just fell flat on some points, the biggest of which is the development of the characters. I was glad that Aunt Lydia was there and salvaged most of the story. I thought it would offer a fresh and thought-provoking message. I expected too much.
It is fervent wish that the other 2019 Man Booker-shortlisted books fare better than this.
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publishing Date: September 2019
Number of Pages: 415
Genre: Dystopian, Feminism, Speculative Fiction
Fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within.
At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results. Two have grown up on opposite sides of the border: one in Gilead as the privileged daughter of an important commander, and one in Canada, where she marches in anti-Gilead protests and watches news of its horrors on TV. The testimonies of these two young women, part of the first generation to come of age in the new order, are braided with a third voice: that of one of the regime’s enforcers, a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets. Long-buried secrets are what finally bring these three together, forcing each of them to come to terms with who she is and how far she will go for what she believes. As Atwood unfolds the stories of the women of The Testaments, she opens up our view of the innermost workings of Gilead in a triumphant blend of riveting suspense, blazing wit, and virtuosic world-building.
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