The year is 2017. You have just reached the end of Margaret Atwood’s famous novel for the first time. You can’t quite believe it – how dare she end it like that?! What happened to Offred? Let’s skip to 2019, where the renowned author has just released The Testaments (Penguin, 2020), the much-anticipated, long-awaited sequel to the award-winning, modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale. We’ve had a graphic novel, a TV show adaptation, a film, even an opera, and now we have the sequel; we can finally find out what happened next.
The Testaments returns to the dystopic theocracy 15 years later. Narrated from the perspectives of three protagonists – Agnes, a young girl growing up in Gilead, Daisy, a young woman living in Canada, and the fabulous Aunt Lydia – the sequel offers us an intimate insight into the inner workings of Gilead. Atwood, in her own, unique way, attempts to answer the questions that have tantalised us for so long.
But the question is, does The Testaments live up to its predecessor? Frankly put, it does not. It is this very attempt to shed a light on the mystery that is Gilead that makes this sequel a disappointing read. The ambiguity of Offred’s perspective in the first book and her narrow view of the world she is forced to live in was extremely powerful, allowing for the reader to imagine and fear the worst, hope for the best. What The Testaments does is remove this ambiguity and room for imagination in a way that only serves to weaken the power of not knowing. Coupled with the fact that the unresolved threads of the first novel remain largely unresolved in the sequel, I begin to question whether this sequel was needed. Is it an attempt to capitalise on the very popular TV show?
The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time. It’s everything you expect from the genre with its shocking, terrifying, and unflinching account of an oppressive, totalitarian government. Never failing to surprise you, the first book is a page-turner. This, however, cannot be said for the sequel, as the plot is incredibly predictable in a way The Handmaid’s Tale avoided, and the twists regarding the characters’ identities lose the impact Atwood intended. Full of highly-transparent clues, most readers will have connected the dots regarding the characters’ identities from the very beginning.
I was also incredibly turned off by the two young perspectives and found their lack of maturity jarring. As you move from the spectacular narrative of Offred in the first book to the brilliance of Aunt Lydia’s chapters, the two young women feel more like characters out of a cliché YA novel. The transition from the captivating and intriguing story of one of literature’s most interesting villains to a detailed account of Agnes’s childhood creates a discontinuity and dissonance to the novel, something Atwood avoided in her first novel.
Atwood has said that she was inspired to write this sequel as she wanted to examine how oppressive regimes fall and explore how people survive living in them. But the one-dimensional characters and a lack of depth and intellectual focus plagues this motivation. While it builds on the first novel and the TV series, it is once again a powerful example of Atwood using her nuanced creative flair to call out today’s society for the oppression of women. The Testaments, sadly and disappointingly, does not live up to its predecessor.
By Lucy Lillystone.