The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Testaments
The Testaments
by Margaret Atwood

Paperback (1 Sep 2020), 448 pages.
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN-13: 9780525562627
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
Readers:
  

In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.

When the van door slammed on Offred's future at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood's sequel picks up the story fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.
 
"Dear Readers: Everything you've ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we've been living in." —Margaret Atwood

The publisher was unable to provide an excerpt of The Testaments to BookBrowse, but there is an extensive excerpt at The Guardian (link opens in new page).

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Margaret Atwood's The Testaments returns to the Republic of Gilead first envisioned in The Handmaid's Tale. Whereas her 1985 work examined how totalitarian regimes gain control; here, she explores how they fail.

Print Article Publisher's View   

The Handmaid's Tale is narrated by Offred (known by no other name throughout the book, although the popular Hulu series gives her the moniker "June") and ends with the heroine getting into a black van, fate unknown. Although many readers had hoped for a continuation of this compelling woman's story, in The Testaments the author (probably wisely) chooses to continue Gilead's story 15 years after the events in the earlier book, employing three different female narrators. Two of these are teenagers, one raised within the male-dominated Gilead to be an obedient Wife, the other raised in Toronto, Canada, learning to hate the system created by her neighbors to the south. The third woman will be familiar to Atwood's readers and fans of the TV series: the formidable Aunt Lydia, who runs the Red Center, where she indoctrinates young women into becoming submissive Handmaids, enslaved fertile women who are to be impregnated by high-ranking Commanders whose Wives are infertile. It's this third voice that fills in the gaps in Atwood's earlier work, exploring how an intelligent, educated woman could be coerced into supporting a repressive regime.

Atwood brilliantly captures the two teenagers' voices, describing with complete authenticity that age when people often feel like they know everything but at the same time are vulnerable and insecure. The highlight, though is her portrayal of Aunt Lydia – older, wiser, more manipulative, and able to control her higher-ups and influence her place within the system. Although responsible for enforcing the policies penned by the powers-that-be, she doesn't embrace them. She has, however, learned how to survive within the toxic political regime, avoiding the purges that periodically thin the ranks of her male cohorts. She thrives on information and knows how to use it to better her position. I found her to be one of Atwood's most complex and compelling creations to-date.

The Testaments is without a doubt a five-star book; it's well-written, it's entertaining, and it moves extremely well. It's inevitable, though, that it will be compared to The Handmaid's Tale, and frankly it falls short of the bar. Atwood's earlier work is a more challenging book to read; it was frightening when it first came out, and in rereading it some 30-plus years later, it seems eerily prescient, far too accurate, and way too possible. It has depth, and I believe it ranks right up there with classic dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984. The Testaments may prove prophetic as well, but right now it feels too juvenile, too directed at a younger audience, and too positive and hopeful at the end.

For those curious, Atwood did work with the producers of the award-winning TV series, which moves well beyond events in The Handmaid's Tale, to make sure her current book dovetailed with where they were headed with their scripts (for example, they weren't allowed to kill off Aunt Lydia, since she's the star of the current novel). I can't help but feel this influenced Atwood's ultimate product, resulting in a book that feels somewhat predictable and, ultimately, less impactful; novels with a happy ending are entertaining and popular, but seldom are they the ones that provoke societal awareness and change.

Atwood, the author of over 40 books in various genres, is a master of the speculative fiction format (defined as a future that could happen with our existing technology, in contrast to science fiction, which relies on technology that hasn't been invented yet, such as speed-of-light space travel). The Testaments will surely please readers who appreciate this genre, particularly those who enjoy female-empowering stories such as The Hunger Games or Divergent. It's entertaining, and while not up to the standard of her earlier novel, still very much worth a read.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Kirkus Reviews
[T]he more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller. Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

New York Times
In both The Handmaid's Tale (the novel) and The Testaments, Atwood wisely focuses less on the viciousness of the Gilead regime (though there is one harrowing and effective sequence about its use of emotional manipulation to win over early converts to its cause), and more on how temperament and past experiences shape individual characters' very different responses to these dire circumstances.

The Washington Post
The Testaments opens in Gilead about 15 years after The Handmaid's Tale, but it's an entirely different novel in form and tone. Inevitably, the details are less shocking ... Atwood responds to the challenge of that familiarity by giving us the narrator we least expect: Aunt Lydia. It's a brilliant strategic move that turns the world of Gilead inside out... But Aunt Lydia is not the only narrator of The Testaments. Interlaced among her journal entries are the testimonies of two young women: one raised in Gilead, the other in Canada. Their mysterious identities fuel much of the story's suspense — and electrify the novel with an extra dose of melodrama.

Slate
... All of this and a corker of a plot, culminating in a breathless flight to freedom, makes The Testaments a rare treat. The Handmaid's Tale, while magnificent, was never that. But—let's not kid ourselves—that's because, of the two novels, it is the least reassuring, the least flattering, and, sadly, the most true.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Atwood does not dwell on the franchise or current politics. Instead, she explores favorite themes of sisterhood, options for the disempowered, and freedom's irresistible draw. Atwood's eminently rewarding sequel revels in the energy of youth, the shrewdness of old age, and the vulnerabilities of repressive regimes.

BBC (UK)
The horrors and repressions of Gilead, so shocking on first encounter, so convincingly realised, are here repeated. If you've seen one ululating birth, one man torn apart by Handmaids, you've seen them all. Atwood's prose is as powerful as ever, tense and spare. She invests certain phrases with ironic fury: adulteress, precious flower, Certificate of Whiteness, fanatics, defiled. Her word games are ingenious. She forces you to think about language and how it can be made to lie. The plot is propulsive and I finished in six hours flat. But if The Handmaid's Tale was Atwood's mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep. The Handmaid's Tale ended on a note of interrogation: "Are there any questions?" Those questions were better left unanswered.

The Independent (UK)
Would The Testaments work as a standalone novel? Yes, although it wouldn't be feted in the manner of the original. Details of the horrors of Gilead unfolded slowly in The Handmaid's Tale, with its ambiguous ending; The Testaments can feel clunkily expositional and overly neat by contrast, explaining rather than suggesting. ... But as a reading experience it's also surprisingly fun, with its plucky young heroines and juicy (if predictable) plot twists. I was gripped and gobbled it up – and not just because of the time pressures of that broken embargo.

The Guardian (UK)
Atwood's task in returning to the world of her best-known work was a big one, but the result is a success that more than justifies her Booker prize shortlisting.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lorraine D
Atwood has done it again!
If you liked The Handmaid's Tales, you will speed through Testaments. The chapters are short and pass the story back and forth between Aunt Lydia and the girls. Some of the description is more painful than Handmaid's Tales if you can imagine that. Atwood has such a remarkable capacity for forming a picture with words. In this case, many words, but I was up until 2 a.m. a few nights because I couldn't resist going to the next chapter.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The Impact of The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret AtwoodMargaret Eleanor Atwood was born in Ottawa in 1939. Although best known for her speculative fiction, she's the author of more than 40 books, including works of fiction, poetry, short stories, children's works and critical essays.

Atwood's desire to be a writer stems from a revelation she had at the age of 16. As she was walking across her high school's football field, she composed a poem in her head. At that point, as she has stated in a recent interview with the Guardian, she decided she was a writer. After receiving her B.A. at the University of Toronto and a Masters at Radcliffe, she moved back to Canada to teach English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, publishing her first book in 1961, a poetry collection entitled Double Persephone (which she self-published, hand setting the type herself). Her first novel, The Edible Woman, followed in 1969.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Atwood's sixth novel, is arguably her most famous work. It has sold more than eight million copies in English alone and has never been out of print. It won the 1985 Governor General's Literary Award for English-Language Fiction, one of Canada's leading book prizes, as well as the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987; it was also nominated for both the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1986 Nebula Award. It's a mainstay of many high schools' honor courses, but it's also one of the books most frequently challenged by parents because of its sexual content and what some perceive as its negative portrayal of Christianity.

The novel, set in a near-future New England, depicts a totalitarian state that has replaced the country's democracy. Now called the Republic of Gilead, it has become a theonomy ruled solely by men, with women relegated to the role of producing offspring only. High-ranking couples who can't produce a child of their own are provided with a "handmaid" – a type of concubine (see Genesis 30:1-3 for the Biblical verse used to justify this). The narrator of the novel is one such handmaid.

Atwood began writing The Handmaid's Tale while living in West Berlin in 1984, taking advantage of a grant that provided funding for filmmakers, writers and musicians to live in the city. "At that time it was a very dark, empty city, by which I mean there were a lot of vacant apartments," says Atwood. "People didn't want to live there, because it was surrounded by the wall. They brought in foreign artists to be there just so people wouldn't feel so cut off." While there she also had the opportunity to visit various totalitarian regimes in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania, which further influenced the direction of her novel. In an interview with CBS she explains:

It informed the atmosphere but not the content [of the book] ... The experience of having people change the subject, being fearful of talking to you, not knowing who they can trust, all of that was there.

She was further inspired to write the novel in response to those who wanted to reverse the freedoms women gained in the 1970s, particularly with regard to reproductive rights (those of us of a "certain age" clearly remember the power of the "Moral Majority" and its influence on policy during the Reagan presidency).

The book was generally considered a critical success after publication, although it was launched with little fanfare ("A big fuss was not particularly made. I think we had some sort of publisher's party," says Atwood). It was not universally loved, however, with some critics feeling the world she imagined wasn't possible (one review by New York Times columnist Mary McCarthy dismissed it as "powerless to scare," and called its premise unbelievable). When asked about the book's reception in an interview Atwood responded, "When I was writing it, we were still in an age in which America was seen as a beacon of light, of liberal democracy, a model for the rest of the world ... We're not there anymore, because the rest of the world has changed and so has America. That is why I think people are seeing The Handmaid's Tale as more possible than they did when it was first published."

Over the decades since it first hit the shelves, The Handmaid's Tale has been adapted into an opera, a ballet and a graphic novel. It was also made into a movie in 1990, with the screenplay by Harold Pinter and directed by the Academy Award-winning Volker Schlondorff. Conceived as an erotic thriller, it starred Natasha Richardson as the Handmaid, Robert Duvall as The Commander, and Faye Dunaway as Serena Joy; it was a flop. In 2017 Hulu TV debuted a series based on the novel. The first season won eight Primetime Emmy Awards from 13 nominations, and the series, now in its third season, has been renewed for a fourth. Atwood is a consulting producer on the show (and even made a cameo as one of the Aunts) but has no veto rights over content. She cooperated with the show's writers while penning The Testaments, however, to make sure their scripts for forthcoming episodes wouldn't unwittingly contradict the events of her follow-up novel.

Photo of Margaret Atwood courtesy of ActuaLitté.

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By Kim Kovacs

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