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The Testaments: 11/05/19

The Testaments

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale (1981). I read the original back in 2005, before this site had settled on being a daily book blog. I haven't seen the television series so all my thoughts on the book will be contained to the current book and what I recall of the original.

It's fifteen years after the close of The Handmaid's Tale, but frankly sometimes it feels more like thirty-eight years (the time between publications). The narrative is broken up into three points of view: a woman who runs the school, a girl destined to be a wife, and a girl who lives outside of Gilead but was born there.

From the woman's point of view we get the story of the early days Gilead. We learn how she was a lawyer and how women's assets were frozen and they were rounded up. We see how she's able to make a shrewd bargain to keep her freedom (more or less) at the expense of the lives of other women and girls.

It's in her story that the most time dilation happens. She was there from the beginning and she was already middle aged. It's now fifteen years beyond the close of the first book but what's not answered is how much time elapsed between the start of Gilead and the end of The Handmaid's Tale.

At one extreme we have the raising of a statue to honor the woman. We have that statue standing long enough to gather moss and to be visibly aged. At the other hand, we have the tale of a girl taken from Gilead in its early years who is now found, living in Canada, aged fifteen. It would frankly have made more sense for her to have been thirty or so, but then she would have been too old to be of use or interest to Gilead.

Then there's the scope of Gilead. When I read the original it had been Americanized. In American English it read as if Gilead had risen from the ashes of the United States. The Testaments has been released in the United States with the original Canadian English intact, giving a very different picture of Gilead.

First and foremost, it's mentioned in relation to places both in the States and in Canada. Specifically Maine and Ontario are named as non-Gilead places. Gilead is also mentioned as being smaller in scope than it would like its citizens to believe and from specific rivers, as well as the French Catholic inspired apparel, the logical conclusion is that's located in the remains of northern Quebec (while the metropolitan area appears to still be Quebec).

Near the end of the book there's a flight that the two girls take on their way to freedom / to be reunited with their birth mother (presumably "Offred"). They end up in coastal area of the American south — or Gilead South. The existence of two disparate Gileads leads to questions, rather than the promised answers!

My final thoughts are this sequel spends too much of its time on the mechanics of Gilead, rather than on character development or actual plot. Despite all this work on world building, there are more unanswered questions at the close of the sequel than there were at the close of the original.

As it happens, The Testaments also fits into the road narrative spectrum. The last third of the book which contains the flight of the reunited sisters is done as a road trip, first by bus and then by boat and foot. They are sibling travelers (CC). Their destination is home (66) — the reunion with a mother they've only heard of and maybe have vague memories of. Their route is ultimately an offroad one (66), across the water, into the safety of Canada after a very roundabout route. Altogether, The Testaments is the tale of siblings traveling home via an offroad route (CC6666).

Three stars

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