‘Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience from God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.’
Spoiler alert: this post contains major spoilers.
Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert on this book or the writer. If external sources were used in the post, they are referenced. These are my own thoughts and no one else’s.
For my very first review, I’ve chosen The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, arguably one of the most anticipated books of 2019 and one that I was eager to get my hands on. I had loved The Handmaid’s Tale, one of those rare books which ticks every box – great use of language, well thought-out and crafted characters and a story that inspires you to reflect on what is happening in the world. The latter is something that I love in a book. In fact, it is what I think books should be all about – not only to entertain but to engage with today’s society and world as well.
While I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I found its sequel disappointing. First, like so many others, I don’t think this sequel was necessary. While The Handmaid’s Tale does leave us with an open ending, the story feels completed. It feels like Atwood wrote The Testaments to make her fans happy, especially following the great success of the Hulu TV series. Moreover, The Testaments seems rushed and is in my opinion spiked with stereotypes. Atwood uses an angry voice that is built on stereotypes from the modern world to get her points across. We don’t get the narrator’s point of view anymore, like in The Handmaid’s Tale, but the writer’s.
The things described in these quotes – incapable, soft female brains, girls not being allowed to read – of course fit with the picture Atwood has painted of Gilead. Women and girls are confronted with these views across the world on a daily basis and that should never be dismissed. However, I think Atwood makes life too easy for herself when using such stereotypes to portray Gilead. I call them stereotypes because I think Atwood could have used much more intelligent examples. It should have been obvious that ‘girls with weak brains’ is part of Gilead’s ideology, anyway. Indeed, Atwood seems so eager to describe and warn us of a world where women are hated and mistreated, that she simply turns to common cliches to do so. Atwood’s desire is understandable in the present climate, with global threats against women greater than ever. Nevertheless, it makes The Testaments almost too biased and thus less credible. The Handmaid’s Tale is more intelligent. Atwood’s language in The Handmaid’s Tale is a language that I would call impersonal, dispassionate, even unemotional to a degree. This isn’t bad, though; on the contrary, it aids The Handmaid’s Tale’s story while the reader still gets a clear idea of Offred’s thoughts. The almost rational language not only creates an aura of constant suspense and tension, it also makes the story plausible. Yet it still manages to criticise Gilead and, on certain occasions, also reflects on present society, that is, Western society, and its faults. It would be easy to dismiss Gilead as another utopian idea; however, thanks to Atwood’s great use of language, to the reader it seems realistic throughout the whole book.
‘…because the urges of men were terrible things and those needed to be curbed. … Whatever our shapes and features, we were snares and enticements despite ourselves, we were the innocent and blameless causes that through our very nature could make men drunk with lust …’
‘What my father was doing in there was said to be very important – the important things that men did, too important for females to meddle with because they had smaller brains that were incapable of thinking large thoughts …’
‘Blood was polluting, especially when it came out of girls …’
‘That was a talent women had because of their special brains, which were not hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping …’
‘The world was infested with men who were certain to be tempted by girls who’d strayed out of bounds: such girls would be viewed as loose in their morals. …’
‘… and stared down at the book. What was inside it that made it so dangerous to girls like me? So flammable, so ruinous?’
Another problem I have with The Testaments is that the story is overly predictable. It is rather obvious from the start that Daisy is Baby Nicole, that Agnes Jemima is Offred and Nick’s baby and that the information eventually bringing down Gilead comes from Aunt Lydia. Furthermore, the end of the story feels more like an action movie with a happy ending than a serious novel. I am referring to Agnes Jemima/Aunt Victoria and Daisy/Jade/Nicole’s escape from Gilead and Gilead’s eventual collapse. Yet the end also feels rushed – how does Gilead fall, exactly? It is briefly mentioned later in the book (The Thirteenth Symposium), but it would have been interesting to get more detail, anyway.
There are, of course, also things I like about The Testaments. I for example like the way Atwood depicts the clash between the two worlds, Gilead and Canada, when Agnes/Aunt Victoria, Becka/Aunt Immortelle and Daisy/Jade/Nicole meet.
‘“Only one glory? Hair?” Jade said. … “Why would you want to shame yourself by shaving your head?” I asked as gently as I could. If you were a woman, having no hair was a mark of disgrace ….’
‘“Working out”, she said. “It’s like exercising. You have to keep strong.” “Men are strong in body,” said Becka. “And in mind. Women are strong in spirit. …” “Why do you think you need to be strong in body?” I asked her. I was becoming more and more curious about her pagan beliefs. … “Well that’s convenient!” said Jade. “Sou you should just let them do whatever?” “You shouldn’t entice men,” said Becka. “What happens if you do is partly your fault.” … “Victim-blaming?” she said. “Really?” “Pardon?” said Becka. …’
Moreover, it is interesting to find out more about the wider world in which Gilead is set when reading about the Gileadean refugee situation. In fact, as a student of international relations, I would have considered it fascinating to know more about this world, and how other countries view Gilead.
‘“A couple of years ago we could have got you out through Saint-Pierre”, said Elijah, “but the French have closed that down. And after the refugee riots England’s a no-go, Italy’s the same, Germany – the smaller European ones. None of them want trouble with Gilead. Not to mention outrage from their own people, the mood being what it is. Even New Zealand’s shut the door.” “Some of them say they welcome women fugitives from Gilead, but you wouldn’t last a day in most of them, you’d be sex-trafficked”, said Ada. “And forget South America, too many dictators. …”’
I am also a fan of the book’s final chapter – The Thirteenth Symposium. This is the part of the book that, in my opinion, provides most food for thought. Set, I think, decades after the fall of Gilead, The Thirteenth Symposium is a conference on Gileadean Studies. The reader is able to find out more about how the world has developed: Women are in leadership positions once more. Yet sexism is still alive and well – in the #metoo era, that feels like a criticism of present Western society.
‘Now that women are usurping leadership positions to such a terrifying extent, I hope you will not be too severe on me. I did take to heart your comments about my little jokes at the Twelfth Symposium – I admit some of them were not in the best of taste – and I will attempt not to reoffend.’
What I like best about The Thirteenth Symposium, however, is that it shows us how we, as humans, reflect on the past. It asks us to study the past so we may not make the same mistakes in the future. Being a historian myself, this is something I take to heart every day and consider to be highly important.
‘How our organization has grown, and with such good reason. We must continue to remind ourselves of the wrong turnings taken in the past so we do not repeat them.’
At the same time, The Thirteenth Symposium tells us that Gilead has been neglected in academic studies for decades and that it was a graduate student who found witness files. To me, this signals that Gilead had already been half-forgotten.The Gileadean Studies organisation has grown, the chapter says, however, is that because of interest only, or a real desire to engage with the past? Moreover, Professor Pieixoto, the conference’s main speaker, jokes while talking about Gilead. The audience’s laughter demonstrates how lightly humans take the past if they are not directly affected by it.
‘Who would have thought that Gileadean Studies – neglected for so many decades – would suddenly have gained so greatly in popularity? Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight.’
‘It was not until Mia Smith, one of our graduate students in search of a thesis topic, opened the file that the true nature of its contents became apparent.‘
‘…a microdot embedded in a scarified tattoo, which I must say is a novel method of information delivery (laughter) …’
My review of The Thirteenth Symposium is more of an analysis. However, I still think it’s important, as – again – it can be referred to the present. Violence and wars are happening across the globe every day and have been for centuries, yet we as humans don’t do enough, or indeed anything at all, to stop them. Isn’t it time we took the past more seriously and make sure it isn’t repeated?
So, would I recommend The Testaments? After my review, you’d probably think I’d give a clear ‘no’ as an answer to this question. The Testaments is disappointing in terms of language and style and the plot is neither original nor surprising. It cannot be compared with The Handmaid’s Tale, which is spectacular in every sense. Nevertheless, I’d urge everyone to read both – The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. This is simply because they address such an important topic – the oppression of women in a totalitarian state, as well as the violence and control of said state towards its citizens in general. In the current political climate – with democracy in decline across the globe and populism and violence against women on the rise – it simply must be read. Both books are not only a reminder of the threats people, especially women, face across the world. They are also a reminder of what’s at stake and what we could lose.
About Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. She was educated at the University of Toronto and Radcliffe College. Atwood has worked at several universities in Canada and the US and has written more than 50 books, which have been translated into more than 45 languages. Her other works include Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, The MaddAddam Trilogy and Hag-Seed. She lives in Toronto. More on her website.