Margaret Atwood's name already had become synonymous with Canadian Literature when, in 1985, she took an unexpected turn and wrote a dystopian satire. The Handmaid's Tale proved an international sensation, encouraged her to write other works that would be considered SF, and birthed a bad movie, a graphic novel, and an initially excellent prestige series.
In 2019, a sequel appeared.
Title: The Testaments
Author: Margaret Atwood
First published in September 2019.
The notorious and enigmatic Aunt Lydia bears witness to the impending demise of the Republic of Gilead.1 Meanwhile, a pair of teenage girls become involved in the resistance. All three characters narrate the events through records they left behind.
Atwood follows her original self-appointed guidelines for The Handmaid's Tale: nothing can happen in her novel that hasn't happened, somewhere in the world, at some point in history. She draws and transforms everything from the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, the rise and workings of the Middle Eastern theocracies and monarchies to internment camps on the Mexican-American border and scandals at private Christian schools and elsewhere, the American experience of slavery and censorship and media shenanigans from a range of political viewpoints. Gilead may be satire, but it's disturbingly credible satire.
The Testaments begins well. Atwood retains a poet's eye for detail, and she begins with one of The Handmaid Tale's most compelling, enigmatic characters.. As in the TV series, Aunt Lydia is the lynchpin, and far more important to Gilead than the original tale indicates. The series makes her a true believer who starts to realize that the regime has gone in directions she can no longer approve. The Testaments makes her a morally-challenged collaborator who, after torture and threats, chose to work with a regime that needs women like her in select positions. She throws herself into the enterprise with apparent relish. She harbors, however, significant resentment that only grows as Gilead becomes more corrupt and oppressive, and she's very much a long-term planner. Totalitarian governments have purges for a reason; their very nature makes it impossible for anyone to trust anyone else. They breed Aunt Lydias. She has been credibly crafted, and provides the novel with some sinister chuckles.
The remaining characters, for the most part, are plausible stereotypes and YA tropes. The teen girls speak in a simplified, teen novel style. While their voices reflect their age, the YA influence does not stop there. It extends to plot contrivances, conventional cliff hangers, and pedestrian predictability.
We have a page-turning novel, I grant, but one lacking in the wit, depth of characterization, satiric excellence, and wordplay that made the original so impressive. The Handmaid's Tale put Atwood in a league with George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. The Testaments places her among the hundreds of writers who, since the success of The Hunger Games, have written mediocre YA dystopian adventures for fun and profit.
And, after all the brilliant works she has written, this mediocre sequel won the much-lauded author her second Booker Prize.
reQuest 2020: an E2 revue
Notes: The Geography of Gilead
1. That Gilead will fall does not constitute a spoiler. The first novel features an epilogue set more than a century later, in which an academic conference discusses the events of the novel, supposedly a recording made by a Handmaid. The sequel brings us to a subsequent conference. By then, Gilead has long been a memory.
But what was Gilead?
The original novel benefited from the Handmaid's limited understanding of the larger world. We know her experience, but we don’t know how large Gilead is, how powerful it might be, or exactly how much of the world has been affected by the various events that have occurred between then and now.
We know that the world has been depopulated. The timeline of the first novel suggests the "Plague of Infertility" started by the 1990s. Offred's descriptions, meanwhile, place her community in what was once Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Testaments features three narrators, one of them very much aware of the larger world and one living in Canada. Atwood necessarily has to flesh out the world a little, and that is always a difficult exercise. We know that Gilead, despite having a powerful army, is very much a remnant of the US. We do not know how much land it covers. We also learn that significant areas have been laid waste. We know from The Testaments that the west coast remains independent as does Texas (a fact suggested in the original novel).
We hear of "heretical" and somewhat free people living on the edges of Gilead, in Vermont. We also learn that, while Michigan and Illinois may be under Gilead’s control (at least partially), the areas around Chicago and Detroit are either independent or in open states of rebellion. The borders may stretch to Utah, but Utah is clearly not getting on well with Gilead (Mormons are considered heretics).
We know from the epilogues of both novels that, in Atwood’s future, the Republic of Texas remains an independent state long after Gilead has fallen, as does Alaska. The series takes its cue from the novels, but it diverges from them in a number of ways.
The third season of the TV series shows us a map of uncertain veracity. Gilead consist largely of the east coast. Its northern boundaries stretch to the Dakotas, though we have indications that their hold on the edges of Gilead is less than secure. We see the waste lands clearly marked, with epicentres of destruction in southern California (one actually identified in the novel), Arizona, and a massive region that encompasses parts of Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. This largest area may be the dangerous "colonies" that Gilead is trying to reclaim. The Republic of Texas, meanwhile, has spread across the coastal regions of Louisiana and Alabama. Florida, too, appears to be an independent entity. Online banter suggests Disney may be in charge:
"Under his ears."