I read The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago before this blog existed. It has really shaken me, especially the fact of how easy it would be to introduce the rules described. How very fragile is the balance in which we operate. And in late October I’ve had my worst fears confirmed, for the Polish Constitutional Court effectively banned abortion in Poland. With a sinking heart and growing fury, I picked up this book between going for protests, aka ‘walks’ in front of the Polish Embassy in London. When I write this review the protests are still raging and growing slowly turning from the issue of abortion and human rights into fully-fledged anti-government protests. By the time you’ll read it in late November I don’t know where we’ll be. Maybe the government will give in, or maybe it’ll introduce the state of emergency, given the pandemic, and use the army forces to deal with the unrest.
The Testaments is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, written 35 years after the first book. The story is told from three points of view: Aunt Lydia, who we know from the first book tells us how she became who she is, Agnes is a teenager raised in Gilead and gives us a glimpse of the life of women born under the regime, while Daisy lives in Canada and gives us a sneak peek from the outside in. The three voices and three stories come together in what turns out the become the beginning of the end of the world as we know it.
Each of the narrators has its distinctive voice and motivation. Aunt Lydia in some way wants to explain herself, but on the other hand, she tries to remain unapologetic. She feels she did what she had to, but at times even she loses confidence.
Agnes loses her mother Tabitha early, only to find out that she was a child of the Handmaid, which turns her into a pariah at school. Her new stepmother wants her out of the house, so a plan for marriage is put in place as soon as possible. With her story, we get to know life without much choice, where you want to ask questions but cannot, but also where you know no other life. There is no other world for you than Gilead, where women don’t read (which is fine, as you don’t know otherwise), where they have their predestined roles from birth, and where they make no decisions of consequence.
Daisy lives a normal teenager life in Canada, maybe her parents are a bit overprotective and her social life is a bit limited, but she is fully aware of the dread of life in Gilead and when her school goes for a protest against Gilead she decides to join against her parents will. That triggers a series of events that will result in Daisy going into Gilead with their missionary Pearl Girls.
This book again is written solely from the women’s perspective. But it also focuses on the relationships between women, on what women do to each other. It is a condemnation of a system, not of men. At the same time, it lays bare the fault lines of this system of oppression, which is exactly the fact that it is a system of oppression. While it’s not as shocking as The Handmaid’s Tale, as we’re already familiar with the setting, there is power in the slower burn of this book. More time to digest and process what is really going on. Given the time I read it in it was an important voice in the discussion for me.
Here are some quotes form The Testaments