When Margaret Atwood announced that she was working on a sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she said she was inspired by all the questions she had received about Gilead “and its inner workings.” “The other inspiration,” she said, “is the world we’ve been living in.”
That sequel, The Testaments, has now been published, but it turns out that it has little to say about “the world we’ve been living in” and even less to say about the logic of tyranny, which was one of her primary concerns in The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, The Testaments is a mediocre thriller sprinkled with a few groan-inducing allusions to Donald Trump. (A national emergency is declared, for example, to stop Handmaids from crossing the border. Yes, fake news is mentioned.) It is a book, Sam Sacks writes in The Wall Street Journal, that shows little interest in what the events of the novel might mean and instead simply tells us what happened in Gilead after Handmaid’s ambiguous ending, which is also “a way of describing the difference between literature and entertainment.”
And rather paltry entertainment at that. I enjoyed Handmaid’s Tale and still think it is one of the more important novels of the past 50 years. The Testaments, however, is a mess.
The story is set 15 years after Offred, who had been having an affair with her Commander’s assistant, Nick, is apparently whisked away by Gilead’s secret police, the Eyes. One of the Eyes turns out to be Nick. Offred had told him that she thinks she is pregnant with his child, and as she is walking towards a waiting black van, Nick tells her that these Eyes are members of Mayday—a covert organization that helps women escape Gilead’s oppressive patriarchal regime. Unsure if she should believe Nick or not but without the choice to do otherwise, Offred steps into the van.
Was Nick lying or telling the truth? We’re not told in Handmaid’s Tale, but Atwood reveals all in Testaments, which is narrated by three female characters—Agnes Jemima, “Daisy,” and the infamous Aunt Lydia. Lydia, who is a far more complex character than she is in Handmaid’s Tale, is the most intriguing of the three, but even she is uneven.
Without giving too much away (a few spoilers to follow), we learn early on that Lydia is working to bring down Gilead’s government as revenge against Commander Judd, but her plan for doing so, despite her otherwise cold cunning, is almost laughably implausible. You see, she has been acquiring dirt on Gilead’s ruling men in a dossier—murders, infidelities, treacheries—and at the right moment, she hopes to send it to the media in Canada who will broadcast it to the world, thus causing chaos in Gilead, as Commander turns against Commander. Why Lydia, who is otherwise an unflinching realist, thinks this will work is unclear. Why we should is even less so.
There’s more. Lydia’s communication with Mayday is disrupted before she can put her plan into action. How can she get the dossier out of Gilead now? How about this: you know that child that escaped from Gilead 15 years ago? The one whom Gilead has been hell-bent on recapturing but whom the members of Mayday have been protecting at great cost to themselves? What if Mayday trained her up—say, in mixed martial arts twice a day for a couple of months (I’m not joking)—and sent her to Gilead disguised as a convert to pick up the dossier and bring it back to Canada? Why her, our 15-year-old refugee asks? “The source was firm on that point. Said you’re the best chance.” Perfect.
But wait. How can Lydia tell Mayday about this plan if she can no longer communicate with them? How about this: she tells them before communication is disrupted that if communication were to be disrupted, this is the plan. And when communication is disrupted, and Mayday sends back their prize refugee, they won’t ask themselves whether Lydia is still alive to carry out her plan or if she is perhaps playing them. They’ll just do it. Remember, it’s the only way!
There are other problems with The Testaments, but the worst one is that it is a thriller that is only mildly thrilling. From the middle of the novel to the end, everything you expect will happen does—no surprises, no turn. It’s about a world that Atwood and others would perhaps like to live in—where truth wins out and every evil act is punished—but it’s not our world.
A few days ago, a bookseller in England accidentally marked The Testaments as the winner of the Booker Prize. It shouldn’t even be on the shortlist.
Micah Mattix manages and writes for Prufrock at The American Conservative and is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.