The Handmaid’s Tale was never a classic in my head because I had never heard about it, until probably a little while before the announcement of the Hulu series. Even then, I was only compelled to read both that book and 1984 because of their drastically increased sales following the 2016 elections and I wanted to know what the fuss was all about. And I ended up with quite a lot of mixed feelings, the major one of them being dread. But I was never in awe of it in its entirety, only parts of it. So, when I decided to read The Testaments, I had no expectations of being blown away; mostly just a curiosity to know what might have happened next. And for all intents and purposes, this book answers that question very well.
My most significant memory of the reading experience of HT was feeling absolutely horrible and terrified if this was a dystopia that might not be entirely implausible in our future. And that’s why the book still lingers in my mind – the author managed to create such a brilliant world that it evokes such deep emotions in us and obviously some of the things happening around in our world also reinforce the feeling that Gilead might not just be a fictional future. That’s where I think this book misses the mark a bit, because we already are familiar with the world and there’s lot less new to be horrified about. But we do get a brief glimpse of the lives of refugees, the underground operations in Canada and how they try to save women from Gilead and how most of the other countries ignore the atrocities of this regime due to the fear of war. We also get to know more about the inner workings of the Aunts, how they came to be in those positions and how the whole system of Gilead is propped up on a bed of secrets, lies and deceit. I liked these additions to the world but I just didn’t think a lot was added to what we already know.
The writing was the main issue I had with HT – I found it very difficult to follow and maybe it was due to how detached Offred was as a narrator, I felt similarly towards the narrative. Thankfully, this one ended up being much more straightforward and easy to read. There are also multiple POVs, so it was nice getting to know more than one character, but I also felt we never got to know anyone too deeply. The pace is pretty consistent, but a little slow because we can’t be expecting this to be an action packed novel. I really thought the ending would be more suspenseful though, but the buildup wasn’t tense enough and it ended fairly quickly too. However, as someone who found the first book very difficult to get through and the show even more troubling (because of the tough subject, I abandoned it after a few episodes), I thought this was much lighter on the horrors and felt like a normal dystopian novel – which is pretty surprising considering it’s Man Booker Prize nominated.
As this book takes place almost 15 years after the story of Offred in HT, the two young women whom we follow here have grown up in a world where Gilead is a reality. Agnes is the child of a Commander, as such it’s the only world she knows and it’s the only faith she believes in. It’s only after she learns some secrets that she begins to question her faith, and what does she have left if not her beliefs. She was the one character I thought we get to know quite well, her motivations and feelings and her deep seated desires.
On the other hand, Daisy grows up on the other side of the border and even protests about the atrocities of Gilead alongside other Canadian citizens, but when tragedy strikes and some truths are uncovered, she decides to help the underground resistance. While I completely understood her grief and confusion about her life, I thought she acquiesced too easily to the call for action, and most of her plot after that moment felt very unrealistic. I guess I’m still confused if she was brave or just idealistic and naive.
And the surprise POV was of Aunt Lydia. I of course didn’t think I would like reading her words, but I have to say I was surprised. I completely loathed her in HT and while my aversion towards her didn’t reduce, I guess I understood why she did what she did and how she came to be that much of a formidable figure in the power hierarchy of Gilead. And while I have to admire her smarts, cunning and survival skills, I am still unsure about the motivations behind her grand plan. And I definitely would have liked to get more answers about that. But her POV is definitely very refreshing to read because this is the only time we get to read atleast a little about a powerful woman instead of the accounts of countless other oppressed women in this world.
Finally, I don’t think my review of this book is going to change the opinion of anyone who wants to read this book. But I do want to mention that if you are someone who absolutely adored HT and want a true sequel for that book, this one is not it and you may be disappointed. However, if you just want some answers about what eventually may have happened to Gilead and what led to it’s downfall, I think you’ll like this much more. Probably best not to go in with a lot of high expectations.