‘The Tes­ta­ments’ is sat­is­fy­ing se­quel to ‘The Hand­maid’s Tale’

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Spotlight - BY JEREMY KOHLER St. Louis Post-Dis­patch

Blessed be the fruit of Mar­garet At­wood’s beau­ti­ful brain. “The Tes­ta­ments,” the highly an­tic­i­pated se­quel to her 1985 dystopian mas­ter­piece “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” is sat­is­fy­ingly full of an­swers; a gift. If you sense a cer­tain calm in the world upon its re­lease Sept. 10, it will be the sound of Hand­maid’s Na­tion be­com­ing lost in 415 won­der­ful new pages.

The de­vel­op­ments will de­light fans of the orig­i­nal novel and the tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion on Hulu, who have been pin­ing to know what be­comes of Of­fred – the young mother stripped of her daugh­ter, her rights and her name and en­slaved as a walk­ing womb – and of Gilead, the lit­eral-minded theo­cratic dic­ta­tor­ship that has knocked the former United States back to 17th-cen­tury Pu­ri­tan­i­cal roots.

Those an­swers have re­mained tan­ta­liz­ingly out of reach for nearly 35 years. The fi­nal chap­ter of the orig­i­nal novel re­vealed that Gilead would fall and of­fered a glim­mer of hope that Of­fred es­caped. But it did not say how.

The must-watch Hulu se­ries, re­cently re­newed for a fourth sea­son, for which At­wood has worked as a con­sul­tant, has piled on as­ton­ish­ing per­for­mances and rightly raked in awards. It has be­come a cul­tural touch­stone at a time when many see its main themes de­vel­op­ing in real life. Re­pu­di­a­tion of sci­ence, re­peal of re­pro­duc­tive rights, at­tacks on jour­nal­ism, white supremacy, roundups of im­mi­grants, fam­ily sepa­ra­tions – all were pre­cur­sors to Gilead’s rise.

The net sum of three sea­sons is that Of­fred, whose real name is re­vealed to be June Os­borne, has hard­ened into a leader in a re­sis­tance that can barely make a dent in the regime’s ar­mor. She smug­gles one daugh­ter, baby Ni­cole, to Canada but stays be­hind to try in vain to lo­cate her older daugh­ter, Han­nah. Mean­while, her hus­band sulks in Toronto and shows up for the oc­ca­sional protest. What the hell, Luke?

“The Tes­ta­ments” quickly dis­tin­guishes it­self from the op­pres­sive tone of the orig­i­nal novel, fold­ing in events from the TV se­ries and march­ing briskly for­ward with June’s bat­tle-ready spirit. El­e­ments of hu­mor abound, with wry re­minders of Gilead’s ori­gins. (Snort laugh: a Gilead cafe named af­ter anti-fem­i­nist Phyl­lis Sch­lafly.)

“The Tes­ta­ments” be­gins 17 years af­ter the events of the orig­i­nal novel and finds Gilead rot­ting from the in­side out, lick­ing its wounds from a long-run­ning war with the Repub­lic of Texas and barely able to pro­tect its bor­der with Canada. Baby Ni­cole is still miss­ing af­ter all th­ese years. Her face is ev­ery­where, a ral­ly­ing point for a na­tion strug­gling for le­git­i­macy among its own cit­i­zenry and in the world.

Three women take turns telling the story, and Of­fred is not one of them. The mystery of her fate haunts and in­forms the story, but her ex­is­tence is barely hinted at. Nor does the story men­tion Fred and Ser­ena Water­ford, the first Gilead cou­ple to “own” Of­fred, last seen at the end of Sea­son 3 in cus­tody in Canada for war crimes against her.

Two of the nar­ra­tors are young women who are strangers to each other. One grew up in Gilead and the other in Canada. You can guess who they might be.

The third is a woman who is not so young: Aunt Ly­dia, the ruth­less, nun­like en­forcer from “The Hand­maid’s Tale” en­trusted to the regime’s most es­sen­tial task, that of as­sign­ing fer­tile women to the house­holds of Gilead elite to be rit­u­ally raped and im­preg­nated.

Like baby Ni­cole, Aunt Ly­dia is a na­tional icon. For her con­tri­bu­tions to the na­tion’s foun­da­tion, her fol­low­ers leave trib­utes at the base of her statue out­side Ar­dua Hall, a con­vent-like struc­ture where she pre­sides over the Aunts who en­force gen­der roles of Gilead’s women and girls. She also runs the Pearl Girls, mis­sion­ar­ies who ven­ture into Canada to find lost girls of the north and sell them on the virtues of mak­ing ba­bies south of the bor­der, and can dou­ble as spies or ter­ror­ists when it suits her plan.

Ly­dia is not so gung-ho for Gilead th­ese days. Her clan­des­tine in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tion has been col­lect­ing dirt on Gilead’s elite for more than a decade, and it’s ugly. To bor­row a phrase from the first book, the bas­tards have ground her down. The big­gest bas­tard of all is Com­man­der Judd, the mas­ter­mind be­hind the coup that put Gilead in power, whose se­rial killings of his own child brides have been neatly cov­ered up to pro­tect the regime’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Ly­dia chan­nels her dis­gust into diary pages she tucks into li­brary walls for gen­er­a­tions to find – she hopes – af­ter Gilead’s even­tual col­lapse. Although no less a mon­ster, Ly­dia earns sym­pa­thy. Her al­ter­na­tive had been death. As she ex­plains, “Bet­ter to hurl rocks than to have them hur­dled at you.”

The de­light­ful twist is that June’s anger and in­dig­na­tion is fi­nally em­bod­ied in the one per­son in Gilead with the power to make a dif­fer­ence – and it’s not just a woman, of all peo­ple, un­der his eye, it’s Aunt Ly­dia.

“The Tes­ta­ments” has al­ready been short­listed for the Booker Prize and will be in the run­ning for count­less more hon­ors. It may not en­dure as a mon­u­men­tal work of lit­er­a­ture like “The Hand­maid’s Tale,” but that surely was not At­wood’s goal. She has a story to tell. It’s her story. She owns it. Peo­ple want more of it, and she’s going to keep telling it as long as she can and in any for­mat she chooses.

Nan A. Talese/Ama­zon/TNS

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