Reviewed by Ali Hope, 1 October 2019
Although I have pre-ordered new releases a few times before it’s not something I do very often – and never have I felt swept along by the hype of new book like I was this one. If I am honest, I had never thought that The Handmaid’s Tale needed a sequel, but once the fact of it was a known thing, I wanted to read it. So, yes, the hype has been insane, but the book is honestly excellent, it’s an absolute triumph on many levels. One of the ideas I love most in this novel is how the very act of storytelling can be an act of rebellion – even if, maybe especially if, you can’t be sure your words will ever find a reader.
Where there is an emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity. I have had ample experience with both.
I love Margaret Atwood – I find her so wise and inspiring, and I really love The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read with my book group a couple of years ago. Re-reading Handmaid is a good idea I think if you’re embarking on The Testaments many moons after first visiting Gilead.
I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about this review – so many people are reviewing it at the moment, and I had been avoiding blogger reviews until I had written my own. I am going to attempt to keep this as spoiler free as possible; certainly there will be no major plot spoilers, though if you’re going to be reading this next week proceed with caution. (There are some spoilers ahead though).
The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive. Such is the theory.
It is fairly well known, I think. that The Testaments is not a continuation of The Handmaid’s Tale as such. Instead it’s more of a re-examination of the Gilead we think we know from Atwood’s 1985 classic. Set around fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments offers us another view of the society of Gilead. We all know how that earlier book ended with Offred heading off who knows where in the back of a van. Many of us wanted to know more and wondered what became of Offred. The symposium at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves us with the idea that at some point Gilead ended – but how? Offred’s position in that earlier novel was such that her view of Gilead was necessarily narrow – there was just so much she couldn’t know or wasn’t allowed to know; her perception of Gilead’s society is therefore skewed. What The Testaments does brilliantly is to open up Gilead to the reader in a way that Offred’s account wasn’t able to. Atwood is brilliant at creating an altered world, a society with different rules and traditions.
The Testaments is told in three different voices – the testaments of the title. The first testament, as we discover within a page or two, is being related by Aunt Lydia – who readers will remember from the earlier novel – a character who has become a huge part of the TV spin off series.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them.
The other two testaments are told by young women, looking back at their adolescence/teenage years, as they came of age and began to make discoveries about the world they were living in. One of these young women has grown up in Gilead, while the other has grown up across the border in Canada, where she has witnessed protests against Gilead, and the visits of the Pearl Girls – sort of missionaries from Gilead. The stories that Atwood weaves through these three testimonies are so compelling, full of twists and surprises; as ever her storytelling is perfect – and she writes so well too. There is such wisdom in this novel, such understanding of how people act – there is also so many wonderful, quotable nuggets of excellence.
You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.
When we consider totalitarian regimes – and the world has seen its fair share of them – what we often ask ourselves is how ordinary people are persuaded to collaborate with what they must know to be evil. This question is explored in the story of Aunt Lydia particularly, and it is a fascinating element – it’s a chilling idea that intelligent people, previously politically unengaged, can be so easily coerced.
You pride yourself on being a realist, I told myself, so face the facts. There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.
The Testaments is a wonderful achievement. For an author to return to her fictional world after so long, and to do it so convincingly, is extraordinary.
Ali Hope blogs at https://heavenali.wordpress.com, where this review first appeared.
Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (Chatto & Windus, 2019). 978-1784742324, 432pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (Free UK P&P)