Its never a small task for a creator to return to something they made if it has since embedded itself in the national – even in the global – consciousness. When that thing becomes a modern classic, adding to it is sort of like having a kitchen extension on a house of cards. Creators that try it often fail to match that greatness of yore, or worse, are met with cries of ‘money grabber!’.
“It is scathing in both the sharpness of its writing, and in the brutal world that writing creates”
Not Margaret Atwood. She has taken more than three decades of sweet time writing the sequel to the legendary The Handmaid’s Tale : The Testaments. It is scathing in both the sharpness of its writing, and in the brutal world that writing creates. While it doesn’t quite surpass its predecessor, it is a follow-up that mostly retains its predecessor’s strengths, and takes its own perspective on Gilead.
To read this book, you certainly need to have read The Handmaid’s Tale. Apart from being a really good book that I’d tell you to read anyway, it provides you with a lot of important information about both books’ setting: the puritan theocracy of Gilead. It also provides you with a lot of questions, which thanks to The Testaments, you now won’t have to wait three decades to find the answers to. Most importantly, if you haven’t read it, a significant twist later on in The Testaments would go right over your head, which would be a sad thing.
“Atwood’s versatility as a writer makes this shine”
Coming from The Handmaid’s Tale also makes the form of its sequel stand out. Instead of a single nameless protagonist, in The Testaments, you follow three different ones, this time with names. Atwood’s versatility as a writer makes this shine. For example, Aunt Lydia feels wise, pragmatic, and calculating in a way that the other two characters do not. One character is also from outside of Gilead, which allows us to see Gilead for the first time as the rest of the world views it.
“Reveals and events were rendered disappointingly predictable because of heavy foreshadowing”
The Testaments is greater than the sum of its parts. Though each narrator starts the novel apart, the three women are linked. Their experiences are, for the most part, deftly woven together as the novel goes on, but I found some plot points were signposted rather bluntly. Reveals and events were rendered disappointingly predictable because of heavy foreshadowing.
“The author has become something of an oracle for our times”
It is undeniably impressive that The Testaments was on the Booker Prize shortlist before it was even published. Now that it is out, this masterfully written novel is clear evidence of why the author has become something of an oracle for our times. Atwood’s prose is clear and readable, but it resists being simple. She is always razor-sharp, telling us something we need to hear in a manner that goes beyond the words themselves, and without ever having to say it.
Atwood spends ample time on fleshing out the world, which is more than welcome. This novel is an opportunity to become more familiar with the morbid inner workings of Gilead: a fundamentalist Christian state where women are horribly repressed, often being turned into reproductive slaves. It is a complex regime that now grows increasingly detailed.
“To know that this is not some wacky prediction of the future, but a grounded collage of the (often very recent) past, is the secret to the novel’s power”
Most disturbing of all about Gilead is its roots in our own world, like the pretext of ecological catastrophe. I hate to sound cliché, but it’s all very relevant in a time where many of us face existential threats on all sides. It is by now well-known that Atwood wrote both books with the rule that nothing could be included that did not have a real-world precedent. Just as before, this is very unsettling. To know that this is not some wacky prediction of the future, but a grounded collage of the (often very recent) past, is the secret to the novel’s power.
“Read The Testaments if you like books that are a breeze to read, but pass on ideas that are not so easy to digest”
Read The Testaments if you read The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoyed it. Read The Testaments if you like books that are a breeze to read, but pass on ideas that are not so easy to digest. Read The Testaments if you want to see some of the very best of this year’s writing. It will draw you into its broken world, only to turn around and tell you that you haven’t travelled very far at all.
Featured Image courtesy of Myron Winter-Brownhill.
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