Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

This review contains spoilers for The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale TV series.

The Testaments is now a book that is completely inseparable from the politics surrounding it, including Margaret Atwood’s controversial shared Booker win with Bernadine Evaristo, but I’m going to try and say something about the book itself before I get to that.

The Testaments answers the long-standing question of what happened to the Republic of Gilead, the oppressive patriarchal-Christian regime introduced in The Handmaid’s Tale that turned women into red-dressed baby factories. In the original book we found out in an academic postscript that Gilead had ultimately fallen. The Testaments explains how that process began.

It is told through the voices of three women, who at first seem new to the world but quickly reveal themselves to have significant connections with the previous novel and TV series. First is an Aunt, one of the engineers of Gilead’s repressive stance on women (mild spoiler: it’s the infamous Aunt Lydia). Then we meet Agnes, a young woman with an evil step mother growing up in Gilead. Finally, we meet Daisy, a teenage girl in Canada who is (bigger spoiler) actually Nicole, the second child of June (Offred) from The Handmaid’s Tale.

In The Handmaid’s Tale novel we never found out what happened to June and her then-unborn child. The TV series went some way to answering that in its second season, revealing she had sent the child on an “Underground Femaleroad” to Canada. Likewise Aunt Lydia was uncompromisingly bad in the original novel, but the series softened and complicated her character. I have always suspected that Lydia was capable of good after she ambiguously told a Handmaid who had tried to suicide that she was a “stupid, stupid girl”. It was never clear to me that Lydia didn’t mean she was stupid for not succeeding, and releasing herself from her life of bondage and rape.

So one interesting aspect of The Testaments is its intertextuality, drawing not just on another book, but using a totally different medium for major plot points. It makes The Testaments less a sequel than an instalment in a Gilead Narrative Universe. Another is just how different a beast The Testaments is from The Handmaid’s Tale. That novel was religiously (pardon the pun) post-modern, using the literally confined perspective of its protagonist to spin an unreliable tale of oppression and what it does to the mind. It was a book that deliberately tested the will and patience of the reader as much as its narrator’s.

The Testaments on the other hand is much slicker. It has the urgency of a page-turning political thriller. Its three perspectives are more omniscient, so we get a wider view of Gilead. They are also much funnier – Lydia in particular gets some cracker lines (at one point she says of a hand-wringing character that “I was ashamed of her for being so novelistic”. Lol). These are still positioned as found documents, but here the conceit lacks the punch of the original.

There are some odd narrative choices. The plot to send Daisy (ostensibly the most valuable Gilead refugee) back into the fire feels as poorly conceived and contrived as the expedition beyond the wall to retrieve a zombie in Game of Thrones’ penultimate season (a plot that existed only to kill off some major characters and create an ice dragon). Things feel a bit rushed and a bit neat towards the end. But these by no means make it a bad novel. It is excellent writing and its optimistic tale of destroying the joint from the inside is a welcome one in these times. It goes down as easily as a spritz on a hot afternoon. It’s just that the more I read, I wondered what the novel was doing that is new. 

In one sense I get that it this book’s existence is enough of an achievement. Atwood famously received none of the profits from the TV series, so a new novel that closes the story while building on the work the series has done is a particularly savvy financial move. Best revenge is your paper. And then there’s the political significance of the tale right now, when Handmaids have become a symbol of resistance against men in general, and Donald Trump in particular. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum indeed. I just wish the story had some of the same lingering burn that made the original so innovative and compelling.

Gay rating: 1/5 for no gay content, except Aunt Lydia who remains a camp icon. Blessed be the fruit.

The Testaments is published by Penguin.

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