Book talk: An uncomfortably familiar Gilead portrayed in Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

21 November 2019

By Alanna Warwick-Smith

“The Testaments” was one of the most anticipated book releases of 2019. The long-awaited sequel to the 1985 cultural phenomenon, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” arrived 34 years later to a new world paradigm, one that feels alarmingly similar to the world of Gilead — first born in the novel and now often referred to in academic conversation as prophetic.

Margaret Atwood and “The Handmaid’s Tale” are sacred ground in the literary world and the November 2018 announcement of a sequel prompted a lifetime of unanswered questions: What was happening in Gilead? What lessons would we learn from the sequel to the book that warned us of a 21st-century totalitarian world? Would we be given the tools to reverse the modern-day injustices being faced by this generation?

There is an obvious change in pace and tone between books that should be expected, noting the decades-long pause between novels. However, readers should approach “The Testaments” with no comparison to her older sister. “The Testaments” is just that — the little sister to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Gilead is no longer surprising. It’s more uncomfortably familiar. Gilead has changed little, the only difference being that for all but one of the women who have lived in this world, Gilead is all they have ever known.

Atwood has introduced two teenage narrators into the world of Gilead, alongside a multi-dimensional Aunt Lydia. The reader is no longer being told about Gilead, but instead seeing it as it weaves into the teen girls’ everyday lives. The decision to juxtapose these experiences with those of Aunt Lydia, the only voice that remembers a life before Gilead, is jarring. Aunt Lydia is not Offred, the protagonist of  “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She remembers the previous world as it was, not through rose-coloured glasses. Because of this you are left as the reader wondering not only what is truly right, but also where Gilead goes from here.

The women of “The Testaments” are not passive and this novel stands out because of them.

These women are your daughters, sisters, cousins and friends. This novel is purpose driven, a feminist manifesto for a 21st century woman living in a modern-day Gilead.

“The Testaments” is available in print and online and can be purchased at Books & Books in the Camana Bay Town Centre.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 print edition of Camana Bay Times with the headline “An uncomfortably familiar Gilead”.