The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Published by Chatto & Windus

WHEN Margaret Atwood wrote the modern feminist classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, it depicted how quickly rights and freedoms many take for granted can be taken simply within a change of government.

As a book taught in school this was regularly presented to young people and became a favourite, not despite but almost for, it’s difficult subject matter and refusal to shy away from the dangerous rhetoric of sexualisation and dehumanisation young women were hearing for the first time.

This is explored further in this sequel, set 15 years after the original book’s events, with two teenage girls and the woman expected to keep them down, at its centre.

Switching between three points of view, the story brings into sharp focus the two sides, the brutality of the patriarchal society of Gilead and the shocking brief periods of normality in surrounding areas such as Canada.

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Aunt Lydia, who was depicted as a terrifying authority keeping other women in their place in The Handmaid’s Tale, recounts her initial trauma of being forcefully removed from her position as a successful judge into a world in which her intelligence would not be valued.

However, in this present day, she has used this intellect and will to live to gain power in Gilead.

While Lydia serves as a fascinating political and philosophical reflection on the very structures upon which such a distinctly and cleverly repressive society was built, there is something painfully innocent in the other two characters.

Agnes Jemima has grown up as a high-status child in Gilead and so, depicts sickeningly fond memories of a world which hid the truth from her. That is until childhood is over and she is exposed to a feeling that cuts into a wound familiar to teenage girls everywhere, the realisation of a lack of true safety from patriarchal expectations.

Meanwhile, Daisy has been raised in safety and normality, until her ordinary life is destroyed and academic exercises into the emotionally distant and backwards society of Gilead become far more urgent.

As it becomes increasingly possible these two girls come from the same mysterious Handmaid, and Aunt Lydia grapples with perpetuating a system so cruel, the three women’s stories begin to slowly intertwine.

The accounts are presented as both personal and deeply honest, coming across not as simple further world building of a popular project but something which digs much deeper.

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Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy present something reminiscent of the central character in The Handmaid’s Tale. All three represent the identity and resistance of women, which are harder for an oppressive society to take than anything else.

This sharply feminine and youthful challenge to legislative and social control is a worthy sequel to Atwood’s original.