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Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

It’s dangerous to write a sequel. When the original was so popular. When there has been such a gap between the former and the latter. When there has been no notion of a sequel in all the years between – despite constant requests being made, as I’m sure must have been the case with this book. So why now? It could smack of opportunism. The Handmaid’s Tale has been brought back into the public mind in recent years, with the TV adaptation that has had much critical acclaim.

To my mind it is also a dangerous thing to approach a TV adaptation when the novel has been so loved and so discussed and so revered by so many since its publication in 1985. But I can honestly say, as a big fan of the book, that the TV series is fantastic and does justice to the ideology Atwood espouses in her novel.

For myself, it was a daunting prospect to start watching Amazon’s TV show. It was also a daunting prospect to pick up The Testaments. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the very few books in my life I have had to read. Could not put it down, read throughout the night till I reached the climax, the pinnacle, the conclusion, the answers, the revelations. I was 17 then and no book had ever garnered my attention so fiercely. I don’t believe I have picked up a book since that has induced such a response from me – at least in terms of the speed with which I consumed it. I am not, generally speaking, a fast reader. And that is in no small part because few books urge me to the speed of which I am capable of reading. The Handmaid’s Tale did that.

The taboo, the politics, the stirring of understanding that had never been presented to me in the past. It spoke of things not talked about. Not really. Of course, I was old enough to know about sex and relationships – had even known love, by that age, even if ephemerally by the more mature standards of my wizened 26-year-old self. And I’d had that gentle education into politics that one gains by osmosis in everyday life; through family and friends and history lessons. But The Handmaid’s Tale was like a firecracker. It threw a grenade into the ideas about feminism and politics that I was only just beginning to grasp.

And so now, some 9 years later, The Testaments has arrived in the bookshops. A sequel to a book that had a significant impact on my younger self. When I sat down to start reading, I felt that I was making a bold decision. “Please don’t let her have messed this up.” It was thus that I was drawn back into Gilead. It is with the voice of recognisable figure, but not a voice we’ve heard before. A figure that generated fear and loathing and hypocrisy – a woman in power, subjugating her fellow women, just to maintain her position on top of the pile. Aunt Lydia was that figure, and it is upon her statue that we that look – how fitting that it is. We are asked first to look at the statue of the woman – strong and imposing and pious – and then to hear the real-life counterpart discuss it. I am immediately reminded of just how damn smart Margaret Atwood is, simply in the retelling of it now.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, it is Offred’s voice alone that is our guide to Gilead, but Aunt Lydia is not the only voice in this novel. We are also privy to the thoughts of Jade – a teenager in Gilead’s bordering country of Canada – and Agnes Jemima – a girl of Gilead. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is more of an adventure. It is driven strongly by plot and action. I am glad of this difference, as another Offred style narrative would seem superfluous. The Handmaid’s Tale is about the politics, the intricacies and hypocrisies of the regime. It is introspective and highly ambiguous. Another Gilead story of this kind would undermine the perfect conciseness of what preceded it and unpack its meaning and reshape them, risking a marring of the original. But The Testaments is not about how Gilead persists, it is about how it falls.

The young women of the story are simple, by and large. They are the products of their environments and the innocent canvases on which rebellion and optimism can be found. They are by no means fascinating characters – in my opinion anyway. Aunt Lydia is the crux of this story and her person is shrouded in intrigue. She is deep and complex and strong and fearless. And cruel too. She is cruel, that cannot be denied. But with motive comes respect, begrudging though it may be.

I turned the first page of The Testaments with trepidation. I turned the last with gratitude. It did not light my world on fire, as The Handmaid’s Tale had done before, but it was a reassurance and a confirmation that I did not place my faith wrongly in the hands of Margaret Atwood.

“Our time together is drawing short, my reader, possibly you will view these pages of mine as a fragile treasure box, to be opened with the utmost care. Possibly you will tear them apart, or burn them: that often happens to words.
                “Perhaps you’ll be a student of history, in which case I hope you’ll make something useful of me: a warts-and-all portrait, a definitive account of my life and times, suitably footnoted; though if you don’t accuse me of bad faith I will be astonished.”

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood, Penguin Random House UK, 2019, p403

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