Cover of the first edition
|Audio read by||Ann Dowd|
Bryce Dallas Howard
|Cover artist||Noma Bar / Dutch Uncle|
|Genre||Science fiction, Dystopian fiction|
|Publisher||McClelland & Stewart (Canada)|
Nan A. Talese (US)
Chatto & Windus (UK)
|September 10, 2019|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Preceded by||The Handmaid's Tale|
The Testaments is a 2019 novel by Margaret Atwood. It is a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale (1985). The novel is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale. It is narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead; and Daisy, a young woman living in Canada.
The Testaments was joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, alongside Bernardine Evaristo's novel Girl, Woman, Other. It was also voted 'Best Fiction' novel in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2019, winning by over 50,000 votes.
The novel alternates between the perspectives of three women, presented as portions of a manuscript written by one (the Ardua Hall Holograph) and testimonies by the other two.
Lydia, a divorced judge, is imprisoned with other women in a stadium during the establishment of Gilead. After enduring weeks of squalid conditions and solitary confinement, she and a small group of other women are handpicked by Commander Judd and Vidala, a pre-existing supporter of Gilead, to become Aunts—an elite group of women tasked with creating and overseeing the laws and uniforms governing Gilead's women. The Aunts use Ardua Hall as their headquarters and enjoy certain privileges that include reading "forbidden" texts, such as Cardinal John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua. In secret, Aunt Lydia despises Gilead and becomes a mole supplying critical information to the Mayday resistance organization.
Fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale, a girl named Agnes Jemima is growing up in Boston as the adopted daughter of Commander Kyle and his wife Tabitha. Agnes has a loving relationship with Tabitha, who later dies of ill health. Agnes and her classmates Becka and Shunammite attend an elite preparatory school for the daughters of Commanders, where they are taught to run a household, but not to become literate. Once widowed, Commander Kyle marries Paula, the widow of a deceased Commander, who despises Agnes. She acquires a Handmaid to conceive a child (a son, Mark) for herself, and arranges for Agnes to be married to Commander Judd, now a high-ranking official in charge of the Eyes and surveilling the population of Gilead.
Agnes later learns that she is the daughter of a Handmaid. She manages to escape her arranged marriage by becoming a Supplicant, a prospective Aunt. In that pursuit she joins Becka, whose father—Doctor Grove, a prominent dentist—has been sexually abusing her and his other underage female patients for years. Later, Agnes is anonymously provided with files highlighting the corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of Gilead, specifically evidence of adultery between Commander Kyle and Paula and their respective uxoricide and mariticide of their spouses (divorce having been prohibited in Gilead). She also learns that she is the half-sister of "Baby Nicole," a girl who was smuggled out of Gilead to Canada by her Handmaid mother when she was young (and whose return the government of Gilead has been demanding).
Meanwhile, a girl named Daisy—several years younger than Agnes—grows up in Toronto's Queen Street West with her adoptive parents, Neil and Melanie. The couple owns a second-hand clothes shop serving as a front for Mayday to smuggle women out of Gilead. On her 16th birthday, Daisy's adoptive parents are murdered by undercover Gilead operatives. Daisy is spirited into hiding by several Mayday operatives, who reveal that Daisy is actually Nicole. The Mayday operatives enlist her in a mission to infiltrate Gilead in order to obtain valuable intelligence from their mysterious mole. Nicole poses as a street urchin Jade in order to be recruited by the Pearl Girls (Gilead missionaries who lure foreign women to Gilead with the promise of a better life), who takes her up and brings her into Gilead.
The disguised Nicole is placed under the care of Agnes and Becka, who are now respectively named Aunts Victoria and Immortelle. Aunt Lydia confirms that "Jade" is Nicole through a tattoo and discloses her true identity and parentage to Agnes and Becka. Revealing herself as Mayday's mole, Aunt Lydia enlists the three young women to smuggle incriminating information about Gilead's elite into Canada. Nicole is tasked with carrying the files inside a microdot on her tattoo. Agnes and Nicole are to enter Canada disguised as Pearl Girls, with Nicole impersonating Becka. The real Becka, disguised as Jade, is to remain at the Hall and provide a diversion once Nicole was found missing. Forced to hasten their plans when Commander Judd learns about Nicole's presence, Agnes and Nicole set out early, travelling by bus, then by boat along the Penobscot River. This boat takes them to a larger vessel which brings them into Canadian waters. Agnes and Nicole manage to reach Campobello Island by an inflatable and are picked up by a Mayday team.
Using the information inside Nicole's microdot, the Canadian media leaks scandalous information about Gilead's elite, which leads to a purge that in turn causes a military coup, bringing about the collapse of Gilead and the subsequent restoration of the United States. Agnes and Nicole are reunited with their mother. Meanwhile, Aunt Lydia commits suicide by overdosing herself with morphine before she can be arrested and executed. Becka died while hiding in a cistern to perpetuate the ruse that "Jade" had run off with a plumber.
The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue, described as a partial transcript at the Thirteenth Symposium on Gileadean Studies in 2197 spoken by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto. He talks about the challenges in verifying the authenticity of the Ardua Hall Holograph and the two witness transcripts by Agnes and Nicole. He also speculates that Agnes and Nicole's Handmaid mother could be Offred of the previous book, though he himself admits for not being sure. He concludes by mentioning the statue that was made commemorating Becka for her actions.
The first protagonist, Aunt Lydia, first appeared as an antagonist in The Handmaid's Tale. She chronicles her life in an illicit manuscript, including details of her life before Gilead and how she came to be made an Aunt. She also meditates on the inner workings of Gilead's theonomy, its hypocrisy, and endemic corruption. Lydia's manuscript is later published as The Ardua Hall Holograph, also known as The Testaments. The provenance of the book, like that of Offred which was published as The Handmaid's Tale, is in question. In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia emerges as a woman who accepts that she must do what is necessary to stay alive, but who quietly tries to work within the system to pursue a measure of justice, fairness, and compassion.
The second protagonist, Agnes Jemima, has been adopted by a Gileadean family, who are raising her to become the wife of a commander. When she becomes a Supplicant, she takes the name Aunt Victoria. She is raised without any knowledge of her true origins.
The third protagonist, Nicole, also known as Daisy, is the daughter of a Handmaid who smuggled her out of Gilead and into Canada as a baby. She lives in Toronto with her adoptive parents Neil and Melanie, who own a second-hand clothing store called the Clothes Hound. Like Agnes, Nicole is raised without any knowledge of her true origins. She takes an interest in human rights violations in neighboring Gilead.
A primary supporting character. Like Agnes she is the daughter of a Handmaid adopted by a Gileadean family being prepared for a high status marriage. However, her "father" is not a Commander but rather an important figure, a dentist, in the Gileadean Upper Class. When she becomes a Supplicant, she takes the name Aunt Immortelle.
Serena Davies of The Daily Telegraph described The Testaments as "a lurid and powerful sequel". She concluded: "Atwood has given us a blockbuster of propulsive, almost breathless narrative, stacked with twists and turns worthy of a Gothic novel".
In an interview by Martha Teichner, for CBS News Sunday Morning, Atwood insisted the novel contains "tons of hope— lots and lots of hope" when questioned about the premise. Michiko Kakutani, writing for The New York Times, contrasts Atwood's thesis of writing one's testimony being an "act of hope", against "the pompous, myopic Gileadean scholars who narrate the satirical epilogues" of both The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments.
Relationship to television series
Atwood wrote The Testaments in coordination with the ongoing The Handmaid's Tale television series, letting the producers know where she was taking the sequel and affirming certain characters' storylines are not impacted by how they appear in The Testaments, since the setting of the television series is several years away from directly portraying events in this novel. Bruce Miller, producer of the television series, has acknowledged the new novel's storyline will be taken into account as the series continues.
The novel was released simultaneously as a book and as an audiobook featuring Ann Dowd narrating the lead role of Aunt Lydia. Atwood said that Dowd's performance as Aunt Lydia on the series helped inspire the new novel. The role of Agnes is read by Bryce Dallas Howard, while Daisy/Nicole is read by Mae Whitman. Tantoo Cardinal and Derek Jacobi read the roles of scholars in the epilogue. The audiobook also features Atwood herself.
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