We learn in the epilogue of The Handmaid's Tale that the Republic of Gilead—a regime that has brutally stripped women of all their rights—eventually falls. The revelation is presented in the form of a partial transcript of proceedings from the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies, held circa 2195. We learn, then, that the tale itself is a transcript of discovered cassette tapes, recorded by the book's narrator, whose role in the puritan theocracy serves as the lens through which the enlightened academics—and we, the readers—experience the transformation of the United States.
Atwood re-employs the construct of found records in The Testaments, her long-awaited sequel. The Handmaid's Tale was first published in 1985 and, as Atwood writes in the sequel's acknowledgements, 35 years is a long time to ponder what happened next. But it's a question she's heard from devoted readers for decades. The answers, she says, "have changed as society itself has changed, and as possibilities have become actualities."
One query she's heard repeatedly: How, specifically, had Gilead fallen, given the various ways in which totalitarian regimes can crumble. The Testaments supplies the answer for readers—and for the returning fictional academics, who once again convene in the book's epilogue for their Thirteenth Symposium.
The story unfolds through the viewpoints of three characters and is set 15 years after the events depicted in The Handmaid's Tale. Two young characters tell their stories through found witness testimony, surmised by the academics to have been eventually used by the Resistance to help topple Gilead.
Agnes Jemima grew up in Gilead, so it is the only world she knows. Slowly, she learns that the woman she'd known as her mother was not—rather, Agnes is the daughter of a Handmaid who tried to escape (yes, a clue). In Gilead, women with viable ovaries are designated as Handmaids and bear children for upper-class, infertile couples. Agnes loved her foster mother, who has died. Now, as a 13-year-old in Gilead belonging to a high-ranking family, Agnes is set to be married to a top commander, who also happens to be a serial murderer of young brides.
Canadian teenager Daisy reviles Gilead from her side of the border. Unbeknownst to her, she was once a baby in Gilead, successfully snuck out, hidden by the Resistance (yes, another clue) and, in Gilead, a symbol of purity. In fact, her parents also are not her parents, but part of the underground seeking to topple Gilead. After her not-parents are murdered, Daisy learns her true identity and travels back to Gilead to work undercover.
Both young women end up as Aunts in training. Aunts, as we learned in the first book, maintain some of the rights no longer available to other women. They are allowed to read and write, for example. They oversee the Handmaids—with degrees of piety and sadism. And it is an Aunt, one of the architects of the laws governing women, whose narration comprises the rest of the story, a returning figure from the original book, the despicable Aunt Lydia. Through her journal we learn much about the inner workings of Gilead, as well as the reasons for her complicity.
These are three unlikely allies in this world, but The Testaments not only supplies missing answers, but reminders of the ways in which reality shifts depending on the perspective.
Much of The Testaments concerns world-building and supplements the single vantage point of the original with additional—and equally horrifying—details. Atwood has said on many occasions that her rule for world-building in this realm is that everything must have a real-world counterpart (and for more context on Atwood's views of speculative fiction, be sure to read her collection of essays In Other Worlds). The child brides, the public executions Atwood has named "salvagings," the state-sanctioned rapes—these are rendered in fiction, but they are quite real.
I first read The Handmaid's Tale in high school, and it terrified me. I did not know at the time the singular impact the book would have on shaping my world view, but I re-read it many times over the next decade and devoted myself to reading and writing about Atwood in graduate school. When I taught The Handmaid's Tale to undergraduates several decades after I'd first read it, I took a level of odd satisfaction at its enduring ability to terrify readers regardless of political context. Of course, this was before the Hulu show and the widespread adaptation of Handmaids as a political symbol.
Atwood can do little wrong in my view, and The Testaments does not disappoint as a novel. The characters are complex, the plot propulsive and the resolution inviolable, at least for this reader. I was not, though, one of the fans clamoring to find out what happened next—it never occurred to me that The Handmaid's Tale was in need of a sequel; I was content to let it remain hermetic and petrifying. I put off reading The Testaments for a few weeks, less from concern that it wouldn't live up to the original than from fear it would. The Handmaid's Tale's original impact, for me, was its predictive quality. It frightened me for the future. Would The Testaments, I wondered, scare the crap out of me anew? And could fictional horrors supplant the actual horrors of today's world? What possibilities, as Atwood wrote, might become actualities?
I had the opportunity to interview Atwood a decade ago for SFR, upon publication of another of her speculative fiction novels, and we discussed her reputation for prophesy—a description she rejects. People who are dubbed prophets, she said, are actually "seeing into the present."
I thought of that as I finished The Testaments, which, though grim in spots, has a more optimistic and expansive focus than The Handmaid's Tale. Is Atwood seeing reason for hope in today's world? Or does she think her readers have enough dark news with which to grapple? Perhaps: she writes in the acknowledgements, "The citizens of many countries, including the United States, are under more stresses now than they were three decades ago."
Atwood may not be a prophet, but I'm more than happy to abide for a story that reminds us as that all things come to pass, good and bad. Though reluctant to spoil the ending, suffice it to say The Testaments provides testament to the importance of remembering the past—no matter how brutal—and fighting for the future, regardless of the odds.