Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware that The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, was published a few weeks ago. The dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale was a game-changer when it came out in 1985, painting a terrifying picture of a totalitarian society in which women had been reduced to birthing machines. The arrival of Trump and religious extremism propelled the book back on the best-seller lists and inspired Atwood to write a sequel. Any follow-up to a brilliantly conceived, ground-breaking creation is a tall order and as much as I found this book an interesting, page-turner (always the case with Atwood, in my opinion), it also feels like a slightly paler version of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The broader perspective of The Testaments is both the book’s strength and its weakness. The intensity and claustrophobia of The Handmaid’s Tale (all seen through the eyes of Offred) is swapped with the perspectives of three characters: the sadistic Aunt Lydia and two young women of Gilead. We get to see the ‘other’ side. What drives the sinister Aunts? And what about the Wives? Everyone here’s a victim, distinguished mainly by the colour of their garbs, and how far you’re willing to go to save yourself (for more details of the context, see our review of The Handmaid’s Tale). But in adopting a wider vista, Atwood loses some of the creepiness and immediacy of the original.
The first two-thirds of this book is vintage Atwood. She’s one of very few authors who manages to marry serious content with addictive reading. It just oozes of intelligent and carefully thought out characters, sentences and plot. It’s in the last third, that Atwood loses me. The plot becomes action driven and dialogue between the two younger characters takes over. The book seems to morph into something else. A teen action novel?
The themes of the book are similar to that of The Handmaid’s Tale – totalitarianism, religious extremism, abuse of power, feminism, forced marriage – with the added message of the importance of activism and resistance. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes’ is Atwood’s timely reminder. As in The Handmaid’s Tale, everything here has happened before at some point in history. I don’t think that The Testaments is as good as The Handmaid’s Tale, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. Atwood is always a pleasure to read but just don’t expect to be blown away in quite the same way as with the first one.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus, 432 pages.
There is more to Atwood than Gilead. Have you read her gripping Alias Grace?