Back in 1985, when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, lots of people still assumed that if we made it to 2019 without summoning nuclear apocalypse, we’d be riding around in self-flying cars. In fact, we don’t even have self-driving cars.
Instead, we’re living in a pop-culture nightmare vision of the future as the ’80s might have imagined it. Donald Trump is President of the United States of America (yes, really), and Sylvester Stallone is back in theaters with Rambo: Last Blood. The literary event of the year is Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel, written in part because of growing global threats to women’s rights.
However grim the circumstances that have brought us The Testaments, its existence, at least, is something to be grateful for. The Handmaid’s Tale introduced us to Gilead, a near-future theocratic dystopia where women are wholly subjugated to men, kept illiterate and forced into ritual rape if fertile. The Testaments gives us a wider view of Gilead, reflecting on not just what it means to live in a rigidly patriarchal regime but what it means to live before, after, and alongside it.
The audio edition enlists six readers — including the author herself — to bring Atwood’s multi-vocal manuscript to life. They’re all great, but Ann Dowd towers above the rest as Aunt Lydia. The actor won an Emmy for her performance as the villainous character in the Hulu series adapted from The Handmaid’s Tale, and she dryly glories in the silently seething character as she takes center stage in The Testaments.
Lydia, a reprehensible villain who enforces the ruling men’s will in The Handmaid’s Tale, here gets a backstory. We learn how she was violently stripped of her life and identity as a professional woman when Gilead took hold, and how she carried those wounds with her through the decades. She sees her country with clear eyes — all the more so since she uses her position to learn secrets about the men and women around her. She uses those secrets for her own good, and possibly someday something more.
Bryce Dallas Howard reads the testament of Witness 369A, a girl who grows up in Gilead and knows no other reality, but knows what she can’t endure about her own. She’s paired with Mae Whitman as the spunky Witness 369B, a Canadian girl whose perilous mission to Gilead will prove to have deep relevance to her own personal history.
So no, The Testaments doesn’t just pick up with Offred, the eponymous handmaid of the first book, learning her fate — a cliffhanger in the original book. That preserves the integrity of the first book, structured as tightly as a diamond with the same cutting force. Readers (and listeners) do, ultimately, discover Offred’s fate, but her story is woven deeply into a book that stands on its own as an examination of the effects of a corrupt and exploitative regime.
Reading (or listening to) The Testaments in the United States circa 2019, as we watch the Supreme Court gradually transform from a bulwark of freedom into an instrument of oppression, one might be inclined to take that it wouldn’t take a violent coup to institute a patriarchal Old Testament regime. Some of the treatment Aunt Lydia experiences, though, is characteristic of other countries that our own has recently dangerously cozy with. The means are different, but the visions are the same: a world ruled by strongmen, where women’s status as sexual property is strictly enforced.
(Race is a regrettable blind spot in The Testaments; the Hulu series has also been criticized for positing an unlikely scenario where a militantly patriarchal society somehow manages to be completely integrated by skin color. The new book essentially ignores race and, thus, racism, when in fact misogyny and racism are very often tightly intertwined. As Jia Tolentino notes, the first novel acknowledged this.)
The Testaments also asks questions about the responsibilities of those who are present for the rise of a society like Gilead, or who watch it from outside, or who hold evidence of its existence in the past. What are their responsibilities — our responsibilities — to the Offreds of this world, and to their daughters?
All this is packed into a story that crackles with suspense, full of hard and incisive truths about the way misogyny worms its destructive way through a culture. Women’s brains, Witness 369A learns, aren’t “hard and focused like the brains of men but soft and damp and warm and enveloping, like…like what? […] Like mud in the sun, I thought. That’s what was inside my head: warmed-up mud.”