Following on from last month, this month’s book is ‘The Testaments’, which is the much -awaited sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. It seeks to answer all the questions that the last book left open. Does June make it out of Gilead? What happened to her daughter Hannah? What happens to Aunt Lydia and how could she act with such violence and cruelty? How does the wider world view Gilead?
The Testaments consists of three different accounts, which are interwoven to give the reader a wider view of what life was like in Gilead. The novel begins with ‘The Ardua Hall Holograph’, a handwritten manuscript that Aunt Lydia is writing in secret. She writes that ‘Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.’ Aunt Lydia knows that the regime which she has supported and committed unspeakable acts for, will ultimately come for her. She does not want to be ‘petrified’, unable to escape from the statue’s portrayal of an Aunt Lydia who is ‘unflinching’ in her commitment to the regime. She senses that blame will come. The act of writing her account could be a way of lightening her guilt; she wants to be understood. Unlike her statue, which is unchanging, Aunt Lydia decides to help bring about the downfall of Gilead.
The conflicting narrative of Aunt Lydia is juxtaposed with the transcript of witness testimony from Agnes Jemima (Hannah), who grew up under the regime and Daisy (baby Nicole), who grew up in Canada. Their stories are told after the collapse of the regime and they look back at what life was like growing up as a young girl in both countries. In Gilead we see how the girls were taught that their very bodies were not their own, ‘through our very nature could make men drunk with lust.’ Women were born guilty and the aunts made them terrified of the wicked power of their own bodies. They learned to not question. When the woman Agnes believes to be her mother dies, she is left feeling very alone and her only choice for the future is to become a wife.
This lack of choice is contrasted with Melanie’s nonchalant comments about how she viewed her future. ‘I’d wanted to be a small animal vet, but that dream came to seem childish to me. After that I’d decided to be a surgeon…..some of the other Wyle school children wanted to be singers or designers.’ The freedoms and opportunities open to them were endless and serve to highlight what the Gilead regime had taken away. There was still a choice, but that choice was between survival and probable death.
Aunt Lydia’s story is about survival, but in choosing to survive has she lost herself? She wonders whether history will see her as a monster. ‘I’ve become swollen with power, true, but also nebulous with it, formless, shape-shifting. I am everywhere and nowhere.’ She asks us, the reader, ‘How to shrink back to my normal size, the size of an ordinary woman?’ In her final months Aunt Lydia is reaching out through the writing of her manuscript, she is attempting to ‘shrink back’. Her story ends as footsteps approach, ‘Between one breath and the next, the knock will come.’
The Testaments is a beautifully written sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It satisfies its reader’s thirst for more in-depth details about the Gileadean regime and there is a sense of some justice knowing that the regime collapsed, and key characters were able to escape. I found Aunt Lydia’s account fascinating. She is aware of the hatred she has inspired in others, but she wants us to understand that she didn’t have a choice. After being tortured in the Thank Tank, she decides to say yes to the regime. She is made to take part in a shooting and confides ‘I did show some weakness. I threw up afterwards.’ Is this true or does she want to soften the horror of what she is admitting to?
In certain circumstances are we all capable of barbarity?