“Knowledge is power and history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” – Margaret Atwood
It took 35 years for Margaret Atwood to return to the dystopian world she created and finally write a compelling sequel to her widely-acclaimed novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel regained popularity in post-Trump America, and the Handmaid’s garb became a symbol of resistance among women fighting for their rights to their own bodies.
Gilead no longer seemed a distant land in pro-life anti-abortion America, and it was soon adapted to television in a series that has been shocking the viewers since 2017. The irony, however, is that this ‘thought-up’ Gileadean theocracy was never a fragment of Atwood’s imagination; every incident that takes place in the book had some precedent in human history. The same is the case with the Elisabeth Moss-starrer TV series.
The Testaments, which is Atwood at her best yet again, recently earned her the Man Booker prize this year, shared with Bernardine Evaristo, the first black woman to achieve this feat. Atwood promised answers to the readers of The Handmaid’s Tale in this sequel, and she delivers. She says that the novel was inspired by the events of the world we’ve been living in.
Narrated as a story told by three women (one in her fifties and the other two much younger), The Testaments is a shocking journey that takes its readers through the heart of Gilead’s darkness. It answers the questions of its past, present and yes, its future.
Set some 15 years ahead of The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel opens in a worn-out by war Republic of Gilead, it seems like the place has lost its sheen, and the rules don’t seem so iron-clad anymore.
To be honest, the place looks like any other place in this world. The readers can sense an end, and so begins the journey towards this supposed end.
What gripped me the most as a reader were questions that refused to leave me alone ever since I finished reading this book. If the world were to turn into a Gilead-like dystopia, would all of us just be the victims?
If yes, then how do we explain the Aunts, the Marthas, the Wives, the other professionals such as doctors, drivers, dentists, and so on? Aren’t all these people in a way a product of a world they did not invent but helped propagate?
I don’t blame them for choosing life over death or a little power over victimhood. I don’t blame the women for inflicting tortures on other women in a bid to survive in a world which was no longer fair for the fairer sex. But I do feel that such a world exists everywhere in some proportion.
Not all of us would be Handmaids now if there were a world like this. Don’t get me wrong but look at the history which is replete with complicity—of people who chose to go ahead with life on a path strewn with corpses of those who didn’t. Yes, I am thinking of Hitler’s Germany, but I’m also thinking of Modi’s India and Trump’s America with their freshly constructed detention camps. Maybe I am taking it too far, but how do we explain the minorities some of us killed while the rest of us chose to look away? My point is, all of us won’t be the victims; some of us would be the ones who were complicit, or too busy to care.
Aunt Lydia, the woman who goes on to wield the same amount of power in Gilead as the men, is one such example. She does not try to defend her actions, but she tells you her story, she tells you how she gained power in a state that hated women. She tells you how she took the tortures inflicted on her with a silent promise that she would strike back. It is in her narrative we get an inkling of Gilead’s fall. It is in her narrative that I could sense Atwood’s voice the most, a voice that often answered the questions that popped in the reader’s head—a voice that cautions and navigates those of us who wanted in.
Atwood finally gives us a glimpse into this dystopia, its origin and its possible future. And what I saw did not disappoint me. I wouldn’t call this latest work a dystopia—as it rather takes a utopian turn, leaving the readers with the hope for a better future. It gives you hope that all those who are pinned to the ground, suffering injustice at the hands of those in power today shall not do so forever. They will rise.
The Handmaid’s Tale confined the readers to Offred’s perspective, but The Testaments, written as a story assembled from historical artefacts, gave us a chance to understand other women in this frightening world. We get the perspective of an Aunt in her mid-fifties, a young girl who grew up in Gilead with no education or freedom, and the last one is a feisty young girl who was smuggled out of Gilead and grew up in Canada. It is through their stories and the subsequent intersection of these stories that we finally decode the tired, old Gilead we see in The Testaments.
As the novel comes to an end, Atwood attempts to close the distance with her readers. It gets too real, and her message is loud and clear: If our nations were to turn into totalitarian state like Gilead, what would it look like? Where would it place you?