And thirty five years later, we know how it ended. Or do we? We know how Gilead ended but we are missing what we (or at least I) have been expecting. What exactly happened to June, immediately after the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale. That seems to be the general feeling I had reading this novel, getting something you did not expect or hope for.
We follow three storylines, three testimonies, three narrators. Only one we know of from The Handmaid’s Tale as a true character, Aunt Lydia, that, once again, does not disappoint.
The most interesting part, for me, is Aunt Lydia’s narration. She is writing her testimony in secret and is directly speaking to the reader. She has written her testimony one day to be found, discovered and read. And who found it? Was it you? The style is so direct that the reader has to get the feeling she is talking directly to him and him only. Not a fictional reader in her future, but the real reader of Atwood’s book.
“Who are you, my reader? And when are you? Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps fifty years from now, perhaps never.”
“On the last page where we met, I’d brought you as far as the stadium, and there I will resume.”
“You are of course fully in control of what you choose to read, and may pass over the dream of mine at will.”
“This morning I got up an hour early to steal a few moments before breakfast with you, my reader. You’ve become somewhat of an obsession – my sole confidant, my only friend – for to whom I can tell the truth besides you? Who else can I trust? Not that I can trust you either. (…) But I forgive you in advance. I, too, was once like you: fatally hooked on life.”
The other two narrators are two girls, it is easy to guess who they could be right from the beginning. Both somewhat lacking in character, they are both quite uninteresting. They just do, and that is the main fault of this novel. There are too many things happening and the characters are a bit bland.
The interesting thing is the difference between the girls, a foreign Canadian upbringing versus the Gilead upbringing. Agnes is the first character to be wholly the product of Gilead, she is thought in the ways of the Gilead without a life and knowledge about anything before/other. But as we can always hope for, reading helps in getting closer to the truth.
“Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others.”
The Testaments has a feeling as if it’s only an ending, not a novel by itself or on its own. It has a feeling of a rushed ending, like a TV show that won’t get a new season, so everything has to be wrapped up quickly, add some action and a happy end.
Atwood’s style is direct, clear and sharp. It’s not writing with a pen, but writing with a knife. Whatever she writes it is distinct, nothing can be out of the reach of her criticism, a constant commentary of today’s society. She pairs it perfectly with her constant playfulness and irony, and that it what makes her greatness.
“For a time I almost believed what I understood I was supposed to believe. I numbered myself among the faithful for the same reason that many in Gilead did: because it was less dangerous. What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steam roller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive. They knew that so well, the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.”
I especially liked the autoreferential, metafictional mention of her own previous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale and its huge popularity nowdays:
“Who would have thought that Gilead Studies – neglected for so many decades – would suddenly have gained so greatly in popularity? Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight.”
Her own pervious novel referred to with a poke of criticism, why had it been neglected and became now so popular? I think it is obvious why. And yes, without a doubt, she has been laboring and making good literature all these thirty five years, in the meantime. And maybe there is a bit of irony here as well? Why would she need the limelight at all?
Interesting, enjoyable, beautifully written, but lacks something. Although I wouldn’t mind another sequel, maybe a novel about the time after The Handmaid’s Tale and before The Testaments? And, of course, I am hoping it will turn out as at least three or four seasons of the series.