“As they say, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” – Margaret Atwood, The Testaments.
After thirty-five years author Margaret Atwood answered the pleas of fans and stilled the curiosity once and for all. It was a thrill to read the first few words of a novel that has been awaited for as long as I have lived. Having said that, I think a good tip is to read it without expectation and take it in for what it is rather than what you want the book to be.
I was given The Handmaids tale, the prequel to The Testaments, as a gift in 2009. My friend penned out a quote on the first page “A woman not only takes her identity and individuality for granted, but knows instinctively that the only wrong is to hurt others, and that the meaning of life is love.” The quote is taken from the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas, and I think it is a fitting one here.
The Handmaids Tale was a book that engulfed me, and it is still to this day one of the most powerful novels I have read. Ten years later, almost to the date, I found myself yet again diving deep down into the dark world of Gilead.
The Testaments consists of three different testimonials that entwine, each offering their own point of view. Aunt Lydia, who we know from the previous novel; Agnes Jemima, a woman that is part of the first generation brought up under Gilead and groomed to marry a commander; and a sixteen-year-old girl, Daisy, who is raised in Canada but always has a feeling that things are not quite as they seem. Aunt Lydia gives her account of events through her memoirs, written in secret at Ardua Hall. The two other women’s stories are told through transcripts from witness testimonials. Together they tell a rich, adventurous story that starts fifteen years after the previous book. A lot of questions are finally answered, and others are not, just as in real life.
The first novel, The Handmaids Tale, is a warning for what could be. Far away enough to be an interesting storyline but close enough to be a plausible possibility. It is serving as a wake-up call if you will. Atwood shows how misogynistic views have consequences, the dangers in dehumanising women and not speaking up in time. Nothing that occurs in the novel is made up; all events happened in reality at one point, Atwood explains in an interview with Penguin*.
“I cut things (news clippings) out and put them in a box. I already knew what I was writing about and this was backup. In case someone said, ‘How did you make this up?’ As I’ve said about a million times, I didn’t make it up. This is the proof – everything in these boxes.”
The second book, The Testaments, has a clear message – speak up, act on injustice, for you have a voice. The novel perfectly suits the post #metoo movement and situation we face today with the normalisation of misogyny and manipulation of power. The novel urges us to fight for our rights and take the future into our own hands.
Another great read if one wants a more profound understanding of some of the themes that are taken into the light in The Testaments is Timothy Snyders book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. This beautifully weighted book gives a clear perception in a time when authority seeks to destroy the legitimacy of facts. “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” Snyder writes. I can’t help but think that the world seems to work on the premise that things have to worsen before they get better. Hopefully, we see a turn in today’s political and social climate sooner rather than later this time around. Speak up to injustice, and wherever you are in the world, if you can vote, make sure to vote for decency.
The Testaments is a great read – order it wherever you get your books. You won’t regret it.
*Atwood interview with Penguin.