Winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
Both accounts teem with lively detail and, though differing in their perspectives on the Republic, share an appealing youthful ingenuousness ... The transition from grim to grin isn’t without some bumpiness. A back story describing how Lydia was broken down into seeming submission to the regime contains material bleak even for black comedy. And Atwood has to detour into spoof gothic and semi-burlesque thriller to evade later risks of jarring discrepancy between suavely ironic tone and uncomfortable content ... What sweeps the book along, though, is its imaginative exuberance ... The twists and turns of an extravagantly suspenseful final race for freedom are done with bravura relish ... Shrewdly, instead of weakening The Handmaid’s Tale’s assured status as a horror-paradigm of ideological tyranny by stretching out its fearfulness, Atwood has complemented her menacing masterpiece with a mordantly entertaining look at the monstrosities of Gilead on the brink of its dis-integration.
[A] compelling sequel ... It’s a contrived and heavily stage-managed premise—but contrived in a Dickensian sort of way with coincidences that reverberate with philosophical significance ... Atwood’s sheer assurance as a storyteller makes for a fast, immersive narrative that’s as propulsive as it is melodramatic ... Atwood wisely focuses less on the viciousness of the Gilead regime (though there is one harrowing and effective sequence about its use of emotional manipulation to win over early converts to its cause), and more on how temperament and past experiences shape individual characters’ very different responses to these dire circumstances ... Atwood understands that the fascist crimes of Gilead speak for themselves—they do not need to be italicized, just as their relevance to our own times does not need to be put in boldface ... it’s worth remembering that the very ordinariness of Atwood’s Offred gave readers an immediate understanding of how Gilead’s totalitarian rule affected regular people’s lives. The same holds true of Agnes’s account in The Testaments, which is less an exposé of the hellscape that is Gilead than a young girl’s chronicle ... Atwood seems to be suggesting, do not require a heroine with the visionary gifts of Joan of Arc, or the ninja skills of a Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander—there are other ways of defying tyranny, participating in the resistance or helping ensure the truth of the historical record.
The Testaments opens in Gilead about 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s an entirely different novel in form and tone. Inevitably, the details are less shocking ... Atwood responds to the challenge of that familiarity by giving us the narrator we least expect: Aunt Lydia. It’s a brilliant strategic move that turns the world of Gilead inside out ... Aunt Lydia’s wry wit...endows The Testaments with far more humor than The Handmaid’s Tale or its exceedingly grim TV adaptation ... That’s the genius of Atwood’s creation. Aunt Lydia is a mercurial assassin: a pious leader, a ruthless administrator, a deliciously acerbic confessor ... Interlaced among her journal entries are the testimonies of two young women ... Their mysterious identities fuel much of the story’s suspense — and electrify the novel with an extra dose of melodrama ... The Testaments is not nearly the devastating satire of political and theological misogyny that The Handmaid’s Tale is. In this new novel, Atwood is far more focused on creating a brisk thriller than she is on exploring the perversity of systemic repression ... the fact that Atwood keeps challenging such categories is all part of her extraordinary effort to resist the chains we place on each other ... Praise be.