For all the bleakness and feministic torture imbued within Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the charm of reading her ecumenical dystopian narrative is found in the underlining tension. How Atwood donates swathes of value to memory by manifesting this anxiety to forgetting, she weaponizes these mirages of yesterday as defenses against a society attempting to break you. As Offred discovers in the closet of her commander’s house, in the previous Handmaid’s writing, “Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum” (don’t let the bastards grind you down.) Atwood presents a duality of tension, cultivating stress in losing linkages to our former humanity and enacting strain when indulging in the small escapes from Gilead.
In her long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, Atwood forgoes that sharpened and rich tension for a work that is often basking in its own sun. It drags the reader to the unvisited corridors and unrequested ideas that construct Gilead. Atwood prioritizes the now olden and somewhat apologetic Aunt Lydia as a rebellious and selfish heroine amidst a collapsing regime, levies a young girl named Agnes maturing indoctrination, and articulates a young girl living in Canada named Daisy discovering her purpose. All of whom serve as essential narrators in this tryptic plot that often revolves around questions of Gilead’s sociological framework, its citizen’s ideological commitment, and the occasional interrogation of truth in a world forgoing emotional honesty.
There’s a lot to relish about Atwood’s expansion, but there’s also a noticeably underwhelmed, guttural reaction that foams in the mouth once you’ve finished. Perhaps it only arrives if you were a beloved devotee of the first novel’s splendid horrors for the same reasoning I laid out. But for those aching with questions like: how does Gilead educate their children? How do Aunts operate in an anti-feminine society? How do neighboring countries argue against and cohesively deal with a theocratic, authoritarian United States regarding global politics and the world economy? Atwood’s novel gifts answers and unwraps context.
While the first novel operates from the point of divulging this newly constructed world to the reader, The Testaments rightfully mechanizes itself from a place of familiarity. It assumes the reader is acquainted with Gilead and this new governance embroidered into the United States. With that, it uses the advantage of commitment to investigate the corners of minds that bear interest from the perspective of the academic reader but have little resonance in emoting the plot laid out by Atwood.
It falls into that grave sin of becoming fascinating rather than stirring, educating rather than investing. I often share this dilemma with art, the balance between objective articulation and emotional construction, two diasporas of the mind that often act as the anchors to any great work of fiction. Yet, authors can often lend to one side or the other, and for me, I feel the loss of vibrancy when leaning towards the intellectualism of explaining the fiction.
While the inquiries previously mentioned feature a resemblance of interest, the questions I find myself more encompassed by are: what makes a successful, independent woman like Aunt Lydia become this pedagogue of a patriarchal society? Was she predisposed to authoritarian ideologies? Was she inclined to theocratic governance? How did she arrive at those points?
Those inquiries grasp at the emotional roots of a character who becomes vilified and informs the reader of a noticeable theme of indoctrination already present in the Sons of Jacob meritocracy manifested by Atwood. But she forgoes the tension of a woman fighting her memory, attempting to erase it, burying the remnants of her humanity in favor of power. She forgoes the roadmap set out previously and turns towards the academic.
You must meet art on its terms; you cannot fight against it for not filling in the divots you created. That said, there is a difference between willing art to bend to your will and prompting anticipations.
On what has been presented, Atwood creates an engaging but often empty work that fails to recreate the magic once inoculated into its pages while updating the feministic ideals to coincide with a world reckoning with its own patriarchal predispositions. To say that I did not hope for further exploration into the significance of memory amidst bigoted regimes, especially the specificity of maternal freedoms, would condemn me as a liar. But Atwood remains a talented scribe, just one whose recent work meets me halfway.