More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.
Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.
After more than thirty-five years, Margaret Atwood finally presents us with the long-awaited sequel of her iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale but was it worth the wait? Atwood claims the sequel was inspired by all those questions she’s had over the years about what happened to Offred, however I think it is more likely to have been inspired by the popularity of the television series and the renewed interest in all things Gilead. The first book left readers with so many unanswered questions, some of which have been subsequently answered by the television series, Atwood’s announcement of a second book caused a great deal of excitement. However, how would a second book affect the series?
Atwood is heavily involved in the production of the series so she has had no qualms about using some of the elements in The Testaments without talking about major plot points or characters. The Testaments is set about sixteen years after the first book and is narrated by Aunt Lydia who is the most familiar character. Aunt Lydia knows a lot of secrets and she has survived in Gilead for so long because the Commanders know she has damaging information that could be used against them. Aunt Lydia has decided the time is right to bear testimony on Gilead and she secretly writes down the events that led to her becoming an Aunt. I’m not going to give away too much detail here as she plays a major part in this novel. Suffice to say, if you are familiar with the series, most of her exploits will not come as a huge surprise.
The other two narrators are young girls called Agnes Jemima and Daisy who have been raised in entirely different circumstances. After the death of her mother, Agnes learns she is the daughter of a Handmaiden and is determined to find out her identity but things become more complicated when a marriage is arranged for her with a high-ranking Commander who is more than twice her age.
The youngest narrator is Daisy, a Canadian teenager, whose life is shattered when her parents are killed in an explosion, however Daisy soon learns they weren’t her real parents and she is the very same Baby Nicole who was taken from Gilead. The story of Baby Nicole’s kidnapping has become legendary in Gilead and the child has practically been canonised to the point her infant photograph is posted everywhere. The Commanders have never stopped looking for Baby Nicole and her return to Gilead would be a major coup for the regime. However, Baby Nicole is also important to the resistance movement who operate an underground railroad for runaway Handmaidens. The plot involving Daisy’s return to Gilead is a little contrived and was the weakest part of the story for me as it seemed unnecessary. There were plenty of other ways to get secret information out of Gilead, particularly since the Pearl Girls frequently leave on missions.
The Pearl Girls are a new concept where apprentice aunts are assigned to a mission to bring converts to Gilead. Dressed in their distinctive silver dresses and pearl necklaces, the Pearl Girls specifically prey on vulnerable young girls and sell them an image of a benevolent Gilead where they would be cherished. Of course, we know the reality is far different.
Gilead doesn’t seems all that different in The Testaments so you have to wonder if all June’s efforts in the series have been for naught. However, there are significant cracks beneath the surface which hint that all is not well within the regime. The book works well within the realms of the series and I did enjoy it, however what I really want is a prequel relating how Gilead was allowed to happen in the first place. The flashbacks in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale reveal a lot but I suspect it is just the tip of the iceberg as Aunt Lydia goes on to tell a sobering tale of stadium executions.