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The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a prisoner’s memoir written in shock, despair, and longing by a woman who has been hijacked from her life and enslaved in a tyrannical theocracy on a poisoned planet where human fertility is imperiled. Margaret Atwood’s concussive and prescient novel remains electrifying and appallingly relevant in the Trump era, both on the page and in its Emmy-winning television adaptation. In her avidly awaited sequel, Atwood returns to Gilead, 15 years after the Handmaid called Offred recorded her indelible experiences. Readers will again enter a dystopia of eerie orderliness as women under ruthless surveillance, their social status indicated by cumbersome, color-coded uniforms, are forced into dehumanizing rituals of sex and punishment. One key character returns, the formidable Aunt Lydia. But in this very different novel, three women tell their stories, the lens widens so that Gilead is seen from the outside, and the focus is not only on men oppressing women, but also on women wielding power. The result is a shrewdly suspenseful tale of survival and resistance. And Atwood’s wit is phosphorescent.
In Gilead, a university’s libraries have been claimed by the elite for their headquarters, and deep in her inner sanctum among the “Forbidden World Literature” collection Aunt Lydia risks all to write her testament. We learn that she emerged from an abusive childhood to become a family judge until she and all other professional women were rounded up and taken to a stadium-turned-concentration-camp in some of the novel’s most harrowing scenes. Aunt Lydia’s tenacity and Machiavellianism ultimately serve her well as the self-described “alpha hen” among the Aunts charged with intimidating and indoctrinating young women. Because the men don’t want to be bothered with “the petty details of the female sphere,” as she sardonically explains, Aunt Lydia becomes a force unto herself.
Two young women provide the other testaments. Agnes, the daughter of a prominent Commander in Gilead, is about to be forced by her conniving stepmother into an arranged marriage at age 13. Daisy, 16, has grown up in Canada, where she has participated in demonstrations against Gilead. Why and how these three converge propels the high-velocity plot and its dramatic and daring missions and quests. And what a great gust of fresh air a teenager’s sarcastic irreverence is. Throughout Atwood’s extraordinarily creative, brilliantly grounded, mordantly funny, and eviscerating oeuvre women are portrayed as complex, diabolical, fiery, and competitive. Warriors for good and ill. Finding that subversive female energy flowing molten beneath the surface of chilling Gilead is positively therapeutic.
For all the wrenching violence and heart-pounding action in The Testaments, which is written in the mode of Atwood’s astutely speculative MaddAddam trilogy—Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), Maddaddam (2013)—it is the droll and righteous commentary that sets this novel alight. Both Gilead novels face head-on the horrors of tyranny and find some glimmer of hope in the redemptive act of bearing witness, a courageous expression of dissent and declaration of freedom in all its hectic and essential splendor.
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Anticipation has been off the charts for Atwood’s longed-for sequel, especially in light of the Emmy-winning TV adaptation of its indelible predecessor.
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