The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, a modern classic published in 1985 and recently, a hit television series and cultural reference point. The release of The Testaments on 10 September was hugely anticipated, with a midnight launch and cinema event with Atwood.
Given the significance of The Handmaid’s Tale in a #metoo world, the 34 year wait and Atwood’s status as a bit of an icon, it was a thrill to buy The Testaments on the morning of its release. I admired The Handmaid’s Tale when I read it some years ago but have not watched the television series – apparently it helps if you have (and The Testaments will be made into its own series).
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is dystopian fiction set in Gilead, a future version of (part of) America. Many readers asked Atwood over the years what happened to Offred – The Testaments gives a possible answer, but is told not from her point of view but by three other characters: Aunt Lydia (a senior figure at Ardua Hall), Agnes (facing an arranged marriage) and Daisy (living in Canada).
Agnes and Daisy are both teenaged girls, so their sections read like a Young Adult novel.
The plot centres around what happens to Gilead. Atwood is interested in how totalitarian regimes persist and how they can be dismantled. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, everything in The Testaments is drawn from real-life events, despite the futuristic tone.
I did not love this book. I liked it and think it’s a worthy companion to The Handmaid’s Tale: it achieves closure and allows readers a sense of hope (or fantasy) about how Gilead could be brought down, but it did not move me.
It has been short-listed for the Booker Prize but the writing, whilst accomplished, did not bring me joy or feel original in the way that I expect a Booker winner to (compare with Lincoln in the Bardo and Milkman, for example). On the other hand, I cannot say Margaret Atwood is unoriginal – she is the victim of her own success, since The Handmaid’s Tale spawned many dystopian novels, so that she would have needed to reinvent the genre if she were to stay ahead.
Another reason it feels unoriginal – again no fault of Atwood’s – is that in the Trump era, and with heightened awareness of misogynistic regimes and the plight of refugees across the globe, the things described in The Testaments are already familiar to us (compare with Frankissstein or Our Life in the Forest, where the ideas were new but plausible).
It feels coy in this day and age to hint at totalitarian regimes akin to Yemen, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, and attitudes that Trump has espoused, without naming them. I had a feeling that it had been stylised (ready for a glossy television adaptation). That is one issue I have with dystopian fiction – the world-building means that you are at a remove from the real issue. It can work well, but in The Testaments the world, the colour-coded outfits and the names (such as The Underground Femaleroad) did not bring the issues alive to me in a fresh way.
Also – and this is my preference and no fault of the book – I like reading about these issues through own voices fiction and non-fiction. I’ve read some great books this year: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee about sex slavery; No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani translated by Omid Tofighian (the imprisonment of refugees) and The Buried by Peter Hessler (life in Egypt, including the treatment of women) among others.
There were aspects of The Testaments that I liked: it’s an easy read and does have a sense of hope, or as Annie put it when we discussed it on the podcast, ‘triumph’. I liked Aunt Lydia. Her section could compare with modern politics – the machinations behind the scenes and political ‘fixers’. Atwood has spoken of Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s fixer) as an influence for Lydia’s character. I enjoyed her scenes with Commander Judd – two equals in a battle of wits.
The other characters were not complex or fleshed out, but they are set up nicely to be brought to screen. I was not invested in them – Agnes seemed bland and Daisy bratty. The other characters – such as Neil, Melanie, Ada and Garth – seemed like vehicles to tell the story.
I found the plot contrived: it seemed unrealistic that women would hold power (in the way Aunt Lydia does) in a totalitarian regime that resembles Saudi Arabia, Yemen, even the USA under Trump. The handmaids escaping via the ‘Underground Femaleroad’ was plausible – it made me think of people fleeing persecution in countries like Iran and Iraq, and of Nadia Murad’s perilous journey in The Last Girl – but felt clunky and awkward.
It lacked dramatic tension. The characters plan to do things (such as move, or escape) and then carry out their plans. Agnes’s escape from her situation felt unlikely and repetitive (as another character has done the same). The plan to bring down Gilead seemed far-fetched. Even in the later scenes, I never felt the characters were in peril (perhaps the YA tone contributed to this).
I also had an uncomfortable feeling that it was a book about white people’s problems. In one scene Aunt Lydia has some ‘Forbidden World Literature’ which comprises a range of white authors. Banning books and censorship are worrying, but when you consider the number of girls in developing countries who cannot even attend school, Jane Eyre feels less urgent.
Overall, a good read and a gesture of hope and solidarity especially for (white American) women.