Book of the Day
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese
Publication Date: July 2019
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Review by Liz Gatterer
The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaids Tale. I highly recommend reading these books – but do read them in order. Also, do not be concerned if you watch the television series based on the original novel. Atwood seemed to take a “what you hold true on earth, I shall hold true in Heaven” sort of philosophy when crafting this new novel. I also think she was very cleaver to leave a large time gap between the novels as this allows for the show to continue and not spin off into its own universe.
Set about 15 years after June’s tale, The Testimonies focuses on the lives of three different women from Gilead: Aunt Lydia, Agnes, and Daisy. By writing this novel as “testimonies”, Atwood seems to hint that some degree of legal action has taken place against Gilead and that perhaps, the insanity has ended or may be ending.
Born in the “time-before” but too young to remember anything of her life from then, Agnes’ testimony shows how, to the indoctrinated, the life of a woman in Gilead could seem perfectly normal. She fondly remembers her childhood – up until the death of her mother. Although she does not want to be a Wife, her privileged position as a daughter of a Commander facilitates her being admitted to the society of The Aunts. She is happy. Due to the needs of the Aunts and a special dispensation, Agnes is taught to read and write. Although she is a devoted daughter of Gilead because of this ability eventually, even she cannot ignore all of the cracks in Gilead’s idyllic façade.
Daisy is a teenage girl from Canada. Raised on the opposite side of the boarder she does not share the Gilead beliefs. She is fiercely independent, skeptical of almost everything, and desperate to belong somewhere. By contrast to Agnes, Daisy is unhappy, and angst ridden. Basically, she is like most girls of the 21st century and in my opinion, rather unsympathetic.
When I read The Handmaids Tale it was incredible to me that any educated woman would willingly take part in such cruel and sanctioned degradation of other women. The Wives and the Aunts seemed to be either deluded zealots, sadists – or a combination of both. Definitely more evil than godly. Unlike the other two accounts in this novel, we are not reading Lydia’s testimony, but rather her memoirs. Aunt Lydia is writing to “the reader”. I’m not sure if this makes her tale appear more or less believable. Her portions are certainly part explanation, part confession and do bring some degree of clarity and rationality as to how it all could have happened. It also alludes to the fact that she has not been able to be deposed . . .
I read The Handmaids Tale as a teenager and it was life-changing for me. After reading it, I was politically aware for the first time and have lived every day since with the belief that you have to be aware. You have to let your voice be heard. You have to make a choice. After all, a frog can be boiled alive if he is not aware that the water in the pot around him is getting hotter. The Testimonies is a less galvanizing tale, but still, very much worth the read. Perhaps, because I am older now, I can have some sympathy for the devil. But, not too much. There is still very much a cautionary sense to Atwood’s work. If you are hoping for a fairy-tale ending for June, or for it all to be explained . . . you probably won’t get everything what you want, but you should get enough to be satisfied.