The Testaments - Margaret Atwood
Updated: Oct 21, 2019
I love Margaret Atwood. I have read more books by Margaret Atwood than I have by anyone else (except Nabokov; it was a phase, please don’t judge me). I, along with every other Atwood obsessive out there, adored The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it so much I got nolite te bastardes carborundorum tattooed across my ribs, and didn’t even care how basic that made me. Although it isn’t quite my favourite of Atwood’s novels (that title is held by The Edible Woman), The Handmaid’s tale is cradled very tightly in my affections. The announcement of a sequel, therefore, struck terror into my heart and created a crisis in my mind that went something like - What if it’s awful?! What if she follows the TV show step for step?! Can I afford tattoo laser removal?! I felt that a sequel to such a landmark novel released just shy of thirty-five years after the original surely couldn’t hold up. I did, however, frequently remind myself that Atwood has released multiple excellent novels within the time between the two books; it isn’t as if she went on a thirty-year break and decided to suddenly reinvent her career to profit off the hype. In fact, she has in recent years crafted some of her most creative work. The Oryx and Crake trilogy is often heralded as her greatest work, and it sits comfortably within the spec-fic/sci-fi genre that The Handmaid’s Tale shares. Her last novel Hag Seed, I reminded myself, was a good read. And so, the day after finishing my re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale in preparation, the release date arrived and I picked up my pre-ordered copy. I can tell you, thankfully, my jaw unclenched after months of worry, it’s good.
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood 4/5
Told from the perspectives of three characters within and outside of Gilead, The Testaments takes place after The Handmaid’s Tale, and widens the picture of the workings of Gilead. By not leading on from Offred’s story, and instead focussing on the wider society and characters surrounding her experience, Atwood manages to create a book that is stand-alone and could be enjoyed by one who has never read the first book. Thankfully, Atwood also avoids replicating the television series. I like the series (although please, can it just stop now?), but I dislike the idea of Atwood’s creative genius being confined to an already written story to appease viewers. Instead, she has cleverly written The Testaments in a way that never directly contradicts, and occasionally affirms, the storyline of the series without rigidly sticking to it. By never actively asserting that the characters involved are related to Offred from The Handmaid’s tale (apart from the ever-present Aunt Lydia), The Testaments doesn’t lose the post-modern ambiguity which The Handmaid’s Tale gained through the final reveal that the tale was being recited at an academic conference.
The Testaments is gripping from the off and, once again, the marvel of Atwood’s genius shines. Her ability to craft a believable fictional state, its religious and social practices, and its political undercurrents, while also conveying the tangible atmosphere that pervades it, is a skill achieved by only a very small minority of speculative/science fiction writers. The Testaments shares the vital trait with The Handmaid’s Tale in that it allows you to believe Gilead; you believe and understand how Gilead could have been created by the social situation which gave rise to it, and you feel where the cracks in the system lie, and how they could lead to its downfall.
While The Testaments did not disappoint my expectations, it didn’t come close to my love for The Handmaid’s Tale, and I would have been extremely surprised had it done so. The monologue of Offred’s narrative is rich and packed which metaphor and lyrical comparisons to make sense of the traumatic life she is trapped in; she sometimes uses floral imagery to ground herself and keep her sane. It would, of course, have been impossible for Atwood to have repeated this in the narrative of The Testaments, as it is not told in Offred’s voice. Yet, I often longed for these poetic moments amid the harsh deadpan narrative of the ageing aunt, the boisterous naivety of the teenage girls, and the piety of the believers. I’m a sucker for a lyrical sentence or two.
I also found a small issue with the writing of the teenage girl who begins outside of Gilead. This girl is clearly confident and rebellious, strong willed and opinionated; yet even the strongest of teenagers would crumble after the sudden death of their parents, and I felt that not enough weight was placed upon this. Her entire life is suddenly completely changed, filled with grief, confusion, and fear; and yet she seems more concerned with her developing crush. Maybe this is the way some teenagers would react, displacing their emotions and focussing on normality in order to cope, yet it felt disingenuous. Once she enters Gilead, a state where she knows she is in constant danger of death, torture and rape, her emotional reactions once again seem unrealistic. Despite admitting her fear, and apparently understanding the danger she faces, she acts out, she’s careless and loud and blatantly flaunts the rules she’s been instructed to follow. Maybe, as I was an overly cautious teenager, I simply find it difficult to believe a perfectly accurate depiction of the behaviour of a particularly brazen teenager. Although, I will confidently hold that there needed to be more depiction of the effects of fear, and a more noted change in behaviour after traumatic events and while in dangerous situations.
Overall I am incredibly relieved to say that Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is excellent. It deserves its shared Booker Prize. I think you should read it. It doesn’t come close to The Handmaid’s Tale, but really not much does. As sequels go, you couldn’t really ask for more: a preservation of the original story, supplementing and expanding a world which grasped the imagination and fears of so many.