The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Cover artAs you're almost certainly already aware, The Testaments is Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel narrated by Offred, a Handmaid forced to produce children for infertile couples in Gilead, a misogynistic Christian fundamentalist republic that occupies part of what was once the United States.

Like The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments is presented like an eyewitness account, but in this case there are three perspectives instead of one. There is Agnes, destined to be given as a Wife one day to a government official, Aunt Lydia, one of the nun-like Aunts responsible for educating and disciplining future Wives and Handmaids, and Daisy, a teenager living in Canada who, unbeknown to her, was smuggled out of Gilead as a baby.

For those who have read The Handmaid's Tale, Aunt Lydia's story might be the most interesting. The Handmaid's Tale presents the Aunts as among the most terrifying figures in Gilead - while most of the oppressors are men, the Aunts are women oppressing and torturing other women in what seems like a horrific betrayal. In The Testaments, we learn a lot more about Aunt Lydia, however - including the details of her life pre-Gilead and how she came to become an Aunt in the first place. While she certainly isn't vindicated, it does become a lot easier to understand her, and her story raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about what any one of us might have done - and become - in her position. Survival instinct is a powerful thing. What points on our own moral compass might we sacrifice when offered that chance of self-preservation?

Unlike Aunt Lydia, Agnes has no memory of a pre-Gilead existence and her character gives us an insight into how a woman educated under such a regime might think. Agnes is far from a pushover, and she has her small rebellions and her quiet doubts, but still recoils in disgust at the suggestion that she, a woman, might put on a pair of trousers.

Atwood excels at giving her characters clear and distinct voices with which to tell their stories, and this is a great strength of The Testaments. Daisy seems to have been fleshed-out with a little less care than Agnes and Lydia - but perhaps that's appropriate for someone who is, to both the regime and the resistance in Gilead, seen as much as a symbol as a human being. It's worth noting that Daisy is put at risk at a very young age and used as a pawn by the resistance in a very dangerous game - there's an underlying sense that they would be willing to sacrifice her for the greater good.

I don't think The Testaments has quite the power and impact of The Handmaid's Tale - but few books do. It is certainly a worthy sequel and, I would add, builds to a tense, action-packed climax worthy of any thriller.