The most anticipated book of the year is here… and the audio version of The Testaments did not disappoint.
The Testaments was written by Margaret Atwood and is narrated by Ann Down, Bryce Dallas Howard, Mae Whitman, Derek Jacobi, Tantoo Cardinal, and Margaret Atwood.
Margaret Atwood’s participation as a narrator made this audiobook extra special. Her voice and tone are, not surprisingly, perfectly suited to the project. Anyone who read The Handmaid’s Tale or has watched the miniseries will be thoroughly satisfied with the ways Atwood’s The Testaments answers their questions about Gilead, Aunt Lydia, Commander Judd, and even Offred herself. As with most feminist dystopia books, so many details are enraging, but in the end, this novel is both inspiring and empowering.
Content & Storytelling
When I heard last year that Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale would come out this fall, I (like countless others) was ecstatic. In the past 35 years, Atwood’s feminist dystopia of Gilead has haunted many readers across generations, and more recently came to life on the small screen with Hulu’s assistance. (Full disclosure: I am not a fan of the miniseries production, as I don’t feel that medium can in any way capture Atwood’s brilliant narrative crafting, and viewers are left with nothing but a morbidly dark world, which, after the few episodes I did watch, left me feeling empty and dirty and depressed.) In any case, I loved the novel itself when I read it for the first time in the mid-aughts– as much as I despised the repressive, anti-feminist Republic of Gilead it described. So, let it be clear, I approached listening to The Testaments with considerable enthusiasm (actually when my editor sent me the file, I squealed with glee and eagerly dove in).
I am pleased to report that all the hype and excitement about The Testaments (my own included) is super valid. Atwood’s sequel to Offred’s saga in The Handmaid’s Tale is superbly crafted, told, and concluded. In The Testaments three women’s stories (two oral, one written) interweave and tell of Gilead’s sunset years. Aunt Lydia, whom we met in The Handmaid’s Tale (one of Gilead’s four founding Aunts) reigns supreme at Ardua Hall (epicenter to the Aunts’ world and home to archives full of Gilead’s secrets). She writes a secret account of her life while hidden in her inner office at the aunt’s Hildegard Library. The reference to twelfth-century Abbess Hildegard von Bingen ought not to be lost on the reader (if you don’t know her, go learn more; she was an incredible historical figure at a time when women’s lives were highly restricted by religious and societal norms). The oral testimony of Witness 369-A and 369-B (both identify by multiple names throughout the narrative) compliment Aunt Lydia’s written account, and through the recollections of the three, the listener develops a well-painted picture of Gilead, the Mayday Resistance operation, Canada, and the inner lives of women living amidst all of these nations/organizations.
As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s prose draws attention to the process of storytelling in The Testaments. There are moments when Aunt Lydia’s hidden manuscript directly addresses her future reader and ponders that reader’s identity. The telling, by Aunt Lydia as well as the two young narrators, is at once intimate, cutting and self-conscious. The novel’s final narrator, Prof. James Darcy Piexixoto, a history professor presenting at the Thirteenth Symposium on Gilead (recall The Handmaid’s Tale concludes similarly with Professors Pieixoto and Crescent Moon at the Twelfth Symposium), some many years after the novel’s action takes place, completes Atwood’s satirical project; it is a male voice, a don of Oxford sort, with which this feminist story closes (perhaps some things never change).
Through Ardua Hall, and especially the books and archives of the Hildegard Library, Atwood explores the importance of literacy: the power of knowledge but also of reading (not simply decoding, but also cognition and critical reckoning with a text’s subject matter). The Founding Four Aunts established early on the divide between their dominion (over women, women’s education, marriage arrangements, and archive keeping) and that of the Commanders who rule the Republic of Gilead with a bloody, iron fist. The similarities between the Aunts of Ardua Hall and the medieval nuns populating abbeys and convents are many (beyond Atwood’s allusion to Hildegard von Bingen). Like historical medieval nuns, the Aunts are the only women of Gilead who can read, who journey beyond Gilead’s borders as Pearl Girls to do missionary work (to heathen women in the outer world), and who keep records of life within Gilead. As such, they hold much power, even amidst the heavy-handed patriarchy in which they exist. And the value and importance of literacy return again and again as a theme in The Testaments. The disturbing story of the concubine cut into twelve pieces (as told in Judges 19-21) weaves through this novel and highlights not only the powerlessness of women in a repressive patriarchy, but also the importance of reading; exegesis being vital to understand the lesson of a story (rather than relying on someone else’s version of its moral). Reading and writing, Atwood’s novel reminds her reader/listener, are intellectual weapons not to be underestimated.
As with all good dystopia, Atwood bases her world of Gilead on plausible reality (albeit a wildly reactionary one). Thus, I found the relationship between the founding aunts (who lived as free women in the USA prior to the regime change and the Sons of Jacob ascent to power) and their supplicants (young aunts in training who were born and raised in Gilead) very much reflects the relationship between our own time’s 2nd and 3rd/4th wave feminists. Atwood also includes elements of immigrant and refugee narrative (both on the part of foreign converts brought back to Gilead by the Pearl Girls and by the flood of refugees, usually women, fleeing Gilead) which certainly resonate with the present. New England’s Underground Femaleroad, first introduced in Offred’s The Handmaid’s Tale, continues to play a role in The Testaments. It obviously references the Underground Railroad of nineteenth-century American history, but also reminds the listener of the contemporary movement of people across borders as they seek sanctuary from repressive regimes and brutal lives in their homelands. This novel is so successful as dystopian satire because many themes at the heart of The Testaments are the very ones we face today: sexual predation and female empowerment (think #MeToo), fear over increased natural disasters, moving people across national borders, and the rhetoric of a nation’s leadership, for example.
The Testaments also plays with the way we see and read history, and teases “another story” about what happens in the days/years following the action in its pages even as the novel closes. Atwood calls attention to the storytelling within the voice of the academic historian with whom The Testaments concludes. He is the one to neatly wrap up the narrative’s loose ends and attempt to answer the questions remaining in the listener’s mind, even as he does so in the tone of self-conscious uncertainty often employed among academic historians. The Testaments reminds its reader that history is a story we tell ourselves with the fragments left of life years after its living.
Ultimately The Testaments is a story about hope, change, courage, and bravery; and, of course, it is a feminist one. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which left readers wondering about so many details, The Testaments answers many questions. I found its conclusion satisfying, humorous, and inspiring.
Length & Pacing
The Testaments had my attention before I inserted my headphones and pushed play. As the sequel to a much-loved novel, Atwood’s novel begins with an enrapt listener. And Atwood doesn’t disappoint. It took me a bit of time to sort out how many narrators Atwood had introduced and how they fit together chronologically, but I quickly identified the three, and the fast pace of the story kept me totally engaged until the novel’s conclusion.
Narration & Writing
The narrators were excellent. Bryce Dallas Howard and Mae Whitman bring the young Witness 369A and 369B to life, while Ann Dowd seeks Aunt Lydia’s redemption in her hidden manuscript (and provides continuity between this audiobook and the popular miniseries). Tantoo Cardinal and Derek Jacobi seem perfectly suited to narrate the academic historians at the Thirteenth Symposium on Gileadean Studies. And Margaret Atwood is a tour de force in her breathy, raspy introductions to each of the novel’s parts (and in narrating the author’s note at the novel’s close). Her writing drips with intense and vivid descriptions as well as so many pithy quotes that make the reading/listening such a pleasure.
We had high hopes for this book, and they were far exceeded by Atwood’s powerhouse storytelling. Any listeners that are apprehensive about a sequel not living up to the iconic nature of its predecessor will find themselves delighted in The Testaments’ beyond satisfactory pages. It’s a perfect read for book clubs, friends who like dystopian feminist literature, and anyone who loves The Handmaid’s Tale as a book or as a miniseries.
When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death.
With The Testaments, the wait is over.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story more than fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.