2021 Reading List: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it was just coincidence that the first book I finished in 2021 was a book about a dystopian replacement of the United States, right when we are watching extreme displays of anarchy play out in real life at the U.S. Congress. Crazy. Appalling. So wrong. I could go on, but this isn’t about politics today. This is just my book review.

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, is a sequel to her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in 2019. Then, like now, I marveled at a book that is written to be wholly fictional and unrealistic and yet is so believable that it may actually happen. I remember thinking that The Handmaid’s Tale was a well-written book but kind of boring in terms of action and plotline. The Testaments, on the other hand, was the opposite. There was a lot going on in this book, and Atwood pretty much required you to read The Handmaid’s Tale first so that you know the background and context of this Gileadean world.

Despite being written some 35 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the connection to the characters and the life they live is seamless.

The book is set about 15 years after the time of the The Handmaid’s Tale, and follows the experiences and accounts of three women, who are, inevitably, connected.

The first, a young girl, Agnes, the daughter of a Commander. Then another young girl, Daisy, who lives in Canada with her parents who run a thrift shop. Lastly, Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, the one who is in charge.

Throughout the book, you realize that everything about their lives is based on lies and deceit. Agnes’ parents were not her real parents. She gets a step-mother, Paula, who had lied about the way her previous husband had died. She gets out of an arranged betrothal by lying and saying she had a calling to become an Aunt. Daisy’s parents aren’t her real parents. They are involved in a secret organization that smuggles girls and women out of Gilead to safety. Daisy had actually been smuggled out of Gilead herself when she was a baby and everyone in Gilead is looking for her. She must lie and deceive in order to sneak back in to Gilead with the hope that she can be a messenger to reveal the crimes of Gilead and bring about its destruction. Lydia’s entire life is built on lies, eavesdropping on every conversation in order to use what’s said and play the right hand. She says she is the founder and is committed to the success of Gilead but she’s actually plotting its demise and has been since she was captured.

Once again, I am surprised by how little time passed between the coup that resulted in the founding of Gilead, and the current events of the book. I had commented that in The Handmaid’s Tale it seemed that only 3 or 4 years had passed – Offred remembered her previous life, her husband, her child, as if it had happened so recently. And now reading The Testaments, I realize that if Aunt Lydia founded Gilead and she had already been considered old then and she is still alive to run the place, then we are only talking about 20 years of Gilead.

So there are women who remember the old ways. There may only be one generation of children who’ve been brought up completely engrained in this dystopian culture. And yet everyone acts like, this is the world, this is the way it is. It’s amazing how they forgot. It’s amazing how they could have adapted to this life of lies, brainwashed into thinking that Gilead is a better place than the world before.

Violence keeps them there. A violent and oppressive system that Lydia herself came up with and devised the rules for. The lack of power keeps women from rebelling. Killing their own citizens keeps them from running away. Fear for their lives and the lives of people they know and love keeps them quiet and subdued.

When you boil it all down, any society could become like this. Take away the power, change the rules, resort to fear and violence to contain the disorderly, and you have a system that is completely dysfunctional and morally wrong. But those with the power might say, whose morals? Everyone thinks their own worldview and way of life is the correct one. That’s why they’re living it. We all think everyone else is wrong, had made the wrong decision. The most extremists will fight, kill, overthrow, and condemn those who don’t believe what they believe or do what they say is right. The most extreme will spread lies, convince others to join them, incite insurrection, all in the name of what they think is fair and just. They think their world is better than reality and they will stop at nothing to control everyone around them and contain them in it.

I know I said I wouldn’t get political, but I leave you with this. Is the world we actually live in today much different from this fictional futuristic society?

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