My rating: 3 stars
To describe a book as a page-turner is usually a compliment. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood has that gripping power of highly compelling reads, but it lacks emotion, details and character exploration. Set in the same fictional world as The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s nowhere near as affecting as its predecessor. Although it offers interesting insights about the inception and disintegration of Gilead, the prose is not poignant enough and the plot is too predictable.
The story is told from three different points of view – Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy. Secretly, at the Ardua Hall’s library, Aunt Lydia, who was introduced in The Handmaid’s Tale, decided to write about her role within Gilead and her memories concerning the inception of the regime. Before the establishment of Gilead, she had been a family court judge. She recalled how her life quickly changed afterwards. What she had to endure was brutal. But now she was a crucial element within that repressive and puritanical state, which divided society into very defined roles. Her importance was such that nine years before, she had been given a statue.
Agnes Jemima is a girl who grew up in Gilead. The man whom she believed to be her father was a Commander. Readers are aware from the very beginning that he is not her biological father, though, since the woman whom she thought was her mother, Tabitha, used to say that she chose her as her daughter. After Tabitha’s death, when Agnes was around nine years old, her father married another woman, Paula, and a Handmaid was brought into the house, which meant that they wanted to have a child. This was when Agnes discovered that the people she had always called mother and father weren’t really her parents. Her real mother had tried to take her across the border to Canada, but they were caught.
In Gilead, girls were indoctrinated by the Aunts on how to behave and on how to be dutiful Wives. They were taught how to dress in order not to attract men’s attention and told that Commanders had crucial duties that only men could perform, because they possessed mental capacities that women did not. The daughters of Commanders often referred to the Handmaids as sluts, something that the Aunts condemned. According to the Aunts, as Gilead faced a problem of infertility, Handmaids were performing a service (becoming sex slaves) to atone for their previous behaviour. What they had to endure was, thus, truly a form of punishment in a misogynistic society where morals are mostly a façade.
The last testimony presented is that of a girl who lived in Canada. Daisy’s parents, Neil and Melanie, died on an explosion on the day of her 16th birthday. Someone put a bomb in their car. She had once gone to a protest march against Gilead without their permission. When they found out, they were extremely concerned for reasons that become obvious too soon.
Except for a couple of Aunt Lydia’s chapters, the book is not affecting. One of the reasons why is the writing style being for the most part soulless and dull. Daisy’s perspective is the most exasperating, since we are told about events with almost no sign of emotion. Agnes’s point of view becomes more interesting and introspective when she recalls the moment she woke up to the problematic issues within Gilead, but it soon turns insipid again. All the characters required more substance. They needed to feel more human and convoluted.
What the book is good at is conveying how repressive regimes establish themselves by instilling fear in the population and resorting to indoctrination and propaganda. They don’t need to have much support, they just need to have the means to oppress. Then the majority just adapts to survive, even if they have to forfeit some of their values. The techniques used at the inception of Gilead are made perfectly clear.
“They were reducing us to animals – to penned-up animals – to our animal nature. They were rubbing our noses in that nature. We were to consider ourselves subhuman.”
Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is a powerful and impactful story, The Testaments is action-packed but not moving. Although I couldn’t stop reading, I was constantly perceiving faults in the way the story is told. It is too predictable, too superficial and tries too hard to make the characters’ tribulations current. It’s too obvious what present-day occurrences Margaret Atwood is alluding to in certain instances. Only Aunt Lydia’s perspective salvages the book.