Raffles Reads: The Testaments

By Huang Beihua (20A03A) and Sarah Lok (20A03A) 

Wondering what to get for your loved ones for Christmas? To us, books certainly make great gifts. And you’re in the right place—Raffles Reads is a new column which aims to promote reading culture among Singaporean students. The books, reviewed by Raffles Press writers, have been provided courtesy of Times Reads.

From Ireland to Argentina, the Handmaid has gained rapid popularity in women’s rights protests of recent years. A future dystopian state where women are institutionally enslaved as “two-legged wombs”, the totalitarian misogyny of Gilead evoked by these red-clad figures offers a chilling warning to our world today. Yet, the question remains that, if Margaret Atwood’s prophecy is to be averted, then how would it be? In other words, how would Gilead fall? 

That is the question Atwood sets out to answer in her latest book, The Testaments. And it is certainly an answer in urgent demand—a copy was sold every four seconds in the UK in its opening week, while American buyers ordered more than 125,000 barely a day after its launch. 

Margaret Atwood speaks at the UK launch event at Waterstones in London. 

In this book, Atwood masterfully plays the dual role of literary genius and political commentator. Within its striking lime green and navy blue covers lies an equally striking tale—one of espionage and sacrifice, one of oppression and resistance, and one of fear and hope. While plot twists are somewhat unpredictable and uncanny coincidences can have eyebrows raised at times, plot elements, as a whole, still interlink together nicely to bring us on a roller coaster ride through everyday Gileadean society that both haunts and captivates. 

The Testaments is, in short, a page-turner standing its ground against any thriller. 

However, a fixation on the plot can easily shadow the pertinence of this book to our world today. From the ramifications of climate change to the horrors of sexual abuse, from the international apathy to a country of suffering women to the unanswered plight of refugees, it is only too clear that Atwood’s inspiration—as she puts it—comes in great part “from the world we live in”. Indeed, you will forget at times that Gilead is but an imaginary country where misogyny is pushed to its limits, instead of our world as it is. 

“Such material enters a writer’s work not because the writer is or is not consciously political, but because a writer is an observer, a witness, and such observations are the air he breathes.”

Margaret Atwood

After all, Atwood’s oeuvre has been critically acclaimed to be incisive and almost prophetic: if soaring sales for The Handmaid Tale can be attributed to the recent resurgence of brazen sexism, The Testaments’ relevance to the present world works its similar magic. She not only effortlessly captures and unabashedly critiques the problems of her time in her work, but also allures the reader with her skillful construction of Gilead—a world that, much like the best of dystopian works, both encapsulates and transcends the zeitgeist of its age. 

In the world of The Testaments, an ode to the bravery and idealism of resistance reverberates. Throughout the book, we see the tireless efforts of Mayday (an underground resistance organisation) agents to free Gilead women despite fears of arrest or assassination; we see young Daisy—one of the three women who narrate this book—ready to infiltrate Gilead with no sure hope of return; and we see the Resistance Inside the Gilead Administration secretly and meticulously plotting its downfall, risking at any moment catastrophic discovery and her consequent destruction. 

In this regard, the book does wonders humanising its characters. The first person narration throughout makes the book almost a conversation between the characters and the reader, skillfully controlled to encapsulate all parts of the human experience. The characters we follow are far from bland figures defined merely by their resistance against oppression: Agnes is more than just another indoctrinated child under the Gilead regime, but also a teenager navigating the complex world of school relationships; Daisy only fights for a higher cause after struggling with loss and guilt as any child in her situation would. Those doubtful among us of our ability to make a difference can therefore look to the book as assurance: the extraordinary feats we witness are all but the work of humans like us. 

The Testaments is also notable in the strength and valiance of its heroines that stand in sharp contrast against characters of earlier Atwood works. There is a typical kind of Atwood heroine, contingent with what she describes in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature to be a Rapunzel-like archetype. Such a heroine is often intelligent yet frightened; determinedly free yet imprisoned by circumstances beyond her resistance, her hope frequently lies in saviours of little substantiality, who, even then, provide but an ephemeral respite. The dire plight of this despairing construction, so prominent in The Handmaid’s Tale, finds no place here. Where Offred’s acts of resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale are swiftly and irrevocably crushed by overwhelming, oppressive power structures, Lydia of The Testaments stays afloat by working around her oppression to obliterate it from within. Likewise, Daisy quickly takes her espionage mission in her stride after an initially reluctant entrance into Mayday, and Becka goes as far as to sacrifice her life for Gilead’s eventual collapse. The sombre and pervasive helplessness of Handmaid is subverted and countered here by a tale of courage and change.

Protesters don the distinctive scarlet attire of the Handmaids during a demonstration in the United States against a new abortion rule put into place by the Trump administration. (Picture credits: The Mary Sue)

Put this way, the book shines a bright ray of hope on our world—yet, it can easily seem too hopeful to be convincing if applied to today’s context. Gilead disintegrates in this book following a popular rebellion incited by a torrential exposure of malpractices and corruption by Gilead’s leaders, yet the very world from which Atwood takes inspiration casts this vision into doubt. After all, have not too many of our leaders emerged similarly from such scandals unscathed, even strengthened? And of what significance are the private malfeasances of Gilead Commanders, if the sheer public brutality of their patriarchal regime is already answered by apathy and inaction?

This unrealistic optimism, however, becomes a statement by itself when coming from an author of Atwood’s stature. The horrors of Gilead came first in 1985, in an age of great feminist optimism, preceded by utopian writings of Ursula Le Guin, of Joanna Russ, and more. Its stark contrast with its contemporary landscape could only accentuate its impact. In an age of growing pessimism and despair, Atwood’s pedigree similarly erects The Testaments firmly as a steadfast monument of hope, a defiant declaration against the odds for the certainty of a better tomorrow. This manifests even in its cover: as Atwood mentioned in recent interviews, The Testaments’ spring green—quite the opposite of the alarming Handmaid red—is meant to evoke a sense of hope in the reader. Given the nature of her work, Atwood may well be predicting future success for some acts of resistance we see around the world today, or filling the reader with much hopefulness to tide through even darker times ahead. 

Even if this is the case, we find The Testaments not quite leaving as lasting an impact on its reader as its predecessor. In this regard, the book’s own riveting plot, in a way, becomes its own undoing. For one, the undoubtedly fast-paced plot means that the reader could, at times, find themselves lost in a flurry of activity with no plot points to hinge onto. These events and action also saturate the stasis and inactivity that amplify the voice of Offred’s anxious consciousness in Handmaid, leaving little room for the reader to connect with the characters’ thoughts and minds with the same intimacy as what makes Handmaid so chilling and potent. While a reader of Handmaid lives and breathes with Offred’s every thought, engrossment in spectatorship here entangles the reader too tightly in the minds of their own. The visceral experience of the former urges deep, critical reflection on Gilead and the society we live in, yet the latter prompts only innocuous satisfaction at having witnessed something notable. 

It would therefore be easy to dismiss The Testaments on these grounds as but another mediocre action novel, one that injects a sense of excitement while reading, supplies a vague idea of hope when finished, but leaves little that lingers much longer after. We assure you, however, this is not the case: a further examination of the three interwoven narratives would unveil a far darker and more complex meaning behind this hopeful facade. 

Let us start with Lydia: among the three narratives, hers distinguishes itself from the other two teenage voices even at the very start. While the others’ narratives are transcribed, hers is authentically written—a symbol of agency, especially considering the importance of the written word as a form of resistance in Atwood’s works. While relatability means generic interchangeability for the others, Lydia’s, spared of such concerns, is distinct, deeply affected yet hidden under apparent indifference, with a brand of dry wit that subtly hints at her own growing desperation. 

“How will I end? I wondered. Will I live to a gently neglected old age, ossifying by degrees? Will I become my own honoured statue? Or will the regime and I both topple and my stone replica along with me, to be dragged away and sold off as a curiosity, a lawn ornament, a chunk of gruesome kitsch?”

Lydia

Lydia’s story is one of survival—bravery in itself—but it does not stop there: she does much more than surviving. Originally a family court judge, she was promptly arrested at Gilead’s rise to power. Squalid detention and solitary confinement (her recollections of this history were distinctly descriptive, technical, with little emotion, a tone making it all the more chilling) led her onto a path of relentless opportunism as she does whatever necessary to survive. If it means executing her former best friend, she will do it; if it means propping up a regime she so abhors, so it does. This eventually elevates her as one of the most powerful people—men or women—across all of Gilead, and it is from that position that she eventually executes her plan for Gilead’s downfall. Her questionable endeavours do not stop after her ascent to power—the ruthless pragmatism continues in her willing condemnation of an innocent girl to death by rat poison, and in her abetting the murder of her political enemy about to expose her secret agenda. This relentlessness that has ensured her survival and success has, perhaps, been infused into her blood and being. 

Aunt Lydia (right) with a Handmaid. 

Is the abandonment of scruples, then, the only path to an eventually laudable aim? Atwood’s answer, as we read it, is not a pleasing one; to understand this, we simply need to contrast Lydia to other elements of resistance within the book. 

Daisy’s attendance in protests—a standard in activists’ inventories and a pure expression of idealism—in fulfillment of school requirements nearly contributes to a major loss for the resistance movement against Gilead. Agnes becomes a collaborator of Lydia’s only through the latter’s manipulation of her innocent loyalty towards Gilead; she was, in fact, used for a purpose directly contradictory to what she wished—to make Gilead strong. Most tellingly, Anita—Lydia’s close friend whose life before Gilead matched closely her own—chooses to die with her integrity intact under similar situations to her friend who chose submission; she consequently fades into obscurity, a little footnote in history compared to her counterpart who would rather bend than break. The message, therefore, is clear: in Gilead, a naive idealism—one that refuses to do harm under any circumstance—achieves little compared to brutal opportunism as espoused by Lydia. 

Ultimately, this begs the question: at what price does hope come? To some, too high; to others, not very. And yet some would disagree this is what the book is about, and prefer a different reading of their own. 

What should our personal take be, then? It is not a job of Atwood’s to dictate, but the dual complexities we see at play here—the plot and the potentially divergent readings of the book—are precisely the hallmark of The Testaments’ beauty. Beyond the final page, you face not just the familiarity of the navy blue and lime green, but an intensely acute realisation of how the fictional world of Gilead, coupled with the actual world we inhabit, gives us neither easy answers nor straightforward consensuses. 

The characters of Gilead merely give us their testaments

"Raffles Reads: The Testaments", 5 out of 5 based on 1 ratings.

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