The Testaments

Is it fair to say The Testaments is a book I’ve waited for for over half my life? Well, I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 15, in high school, and I’m 31 now, so… yeah, pretty much? Also, let’s get the big question of the way first: it delivered.

(BIG spoilers ahead!)

The Testaments revolves around three women/girls: firstly Aunt Lydia, secondly June’s daughter Agnes, and thirdly June’s other daughter Nicole, who you might remember plays a pretty big part in the TV series right now. Nicole goes through various names during the course of this book, including “Jade” when she’s sent to infiltrate Gilead.

Ah, so that’s why the cover is green.

The most common complaint I’ve seen about this novel is “So, plucky young girl is sent into a dystopia and meets her long-lost sister, helps bring down a regime? It reads like a YA book.” And you know what? It DOES! And you know what else? I am DELIGHTED! YA books, with their cascade of brave and brightly-coloured teenage girls fighting injustice, they get a bad rap. People mock them. After all, we all know it’s stupid and unrealistic, the idea of smart, uncompromising young girls enacting large-scale social change.

So yeah.

Here’s the thing: I actually didn’t like Nicole all that much at first. I couldn’t relate to her one bit and I found her obnoxious/extremely likely to blow the plan and get everyone killed. But I’m happy she was one of the heroines and I hope that if teenage girls do read The Testaments, whether for high school or not, that they’re inspired by her.

I did love this line from her, regarding Gilead:

What am I doing here? This place is weird as fuck.

Ah, Nicole, you’re definitely your mother’s daughter.

Agnes was my favourite character in this book. If The Testaments does end up being the basis for the next few seasons of the Handmaid’s Tale TV show I cannot wait to see who will play the older version of her and how she’ll act out some of the things detailed in this book. Agnes (I keep wanting to call her Hannah, since we know that’s the name her mother gave her, but I guess we’ll stick with Agnes for now) delivers one of my favourite lines:

The man eyes that were always roaming here and there like the eyes of tigers, those searchlight eyes, needed to be shielded from the alluring and indeed blinding power of us – of our shapely or skinny or fat legs, of our graceful or knobbly or sausage arms, of our peachy or blotchy skins, of our entwining curls of shining hair or our coarse unruly pelts or our straw-like wispy braids, it did not matter.

How often have girls heard that, that sexual assault is about just attraction, when it’s more about power? Gilead is so messed up. We knew that already of course but it’s so messed up, and I loved seeing Agnes break out of its brainwashing.

I had trouble reconciling this book’s Aunt Lydia with the Aunt Lydia of the first book, until it occured to me that maybe the Aunt Lydia of the book wasn’t actually as bad as I remembered? She’s much, much worse in the TV show and that’s the image of her I have now, but maybe that wasn’t the image Atwood had while writing this book. I really wish I could check my old copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, but I don’t have it with me. Still, I don’t think anything in this book really stops me from being able to call her one of my favourite villains of all time, like I used to?

Another complex villain in this book is Tabitha, adoptive mother of Agnes. She’s sympathetic but she is a villain, she’s raising a stolen child whom she knows damn well is stolen, going along with the regime and filling her “daughter’s” head with lies.

That is what Tabitha used to tell me: “I went for a walk in the forest,” she would say, “and then I came across an enchanted castle and there were a lot of little girls locked inside, and none of them had any mothers, and they were under the spell of the wicked witches. I had a magic ring which unlocked the castle, but I could only rescue one little girl. So I looked at them all very carefully, and then, out of the whole crowd, I chose you!”

AND NONE OF THEM HAD ANY MOTHERS. Tabitha is a victim of Gilead too but despite the love Agnes had for her I can only feel hatred when she’s mentioned. Well done, Atwood.

I didn’t feel that same hatred for the main villain of the story, because there was so little there to feel anything about. Commander Judd is a one-dimensional monster with no redeeming features whatsoever, he might as well have been a literal demon. I can’t really criticize Atwood for that though because I imagine she did it on purpose: complicated female characters, uninteresting male ones. I’ve seen the same thing noted about The Handmaid’s Tale too.

June (I refuse to call her “Offred”) doesn’t show up in this story til the end, and when she does she’s immediately reunited with her daughters. I’ve heard complaints about that, too, that it was too pat and easy. And I literally could not disagree more because, my god, you’ve seen the world we’re living in? People are dressing as Handmaids at political protests because the point still needs to be made. June, Agnes and Nicole deserved that happy ending after everything they went through but we deserve that happy ending too. It’s not a cop-out, it’s hope. Come on! You don’t think we could use some? Really?

The Testaments ends like its predecessor did, with historians gathered to try and put together the pieces. As a budding and extremely amateur historian I always loved the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale. This one, though, I loved even more because of how it gave one of the story’s unsung heroines a moment in the spotlight. If I had to name one Theme this novel has, it’s “Don’t forget the women who came before you and sacrificed everything.” You know, I’m not going to reveal the identity of the last woman this book mentions, but I loved her too. And I also love that the last line of the original Handmaid’s Tale is

Are there any questions?

and in this one,

A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and that which hath wings shall tell the matter, love is as strong as death.

All that time and we finally got an answer.