Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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It must be said that I awaited the publishing of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale with some trepidation, a mixture of excitement and anxiety, even despite its recent nomination for the Booker Prize. The 1985 novel is one of my favourite books, and certainly, I think, one of the most beautiful closing lines of any piece of modern literature. 

My nervousness was born out of my desire for this perfect image not to be marred in any way; I was so concerned that this long-awaited sequel would impinge upon my love of The Handmaid’s Tale. However, set over a decade after the close of Offred’s story, The Testaments did not encroach upon my love for the story of her struggle, but rather enhanced it, and I am happy to say I devoured it in only a few short hours.

For anyone who has not read this modern classic I would, of course, highly recommend it. Yet even for those who have not, The Testaments stands alone as an independent work of fiction; it is less a sequel and more an entirely separate story within the same dystopian world. Told from the perspectives of three strong women of Gilead, whose stories cleverly intertwine, these ‘testaments’ lend a personal and yet poignant strength to the narrative. 

I did, for the first few pages, find the multiple perspectives a little confusing, but once the character and voice of each narrator is established it becomes almost natural to flit between these different perspectives. It must be said the decision to use multiple first-person narrators, rather than one omniscient narrator, not only enhances the personal emotional bond we feel with each character, but also is born out of Atwood’s desire to present the ‘testaments’ as if they were primary historical sources from the Gilead regime, in much the same way as Offred’s ‘testament’ in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood does not shy away from the horrors of female subjugation presented in the work

Those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale, or even watched the enormously successful television adaptation, will recall the fearsome character of Aunt Lydia. It is her perspective that opens The Testaments and drives the narrative as she seeks to use her high status to bring the characters together, through a plot (in both senses of the word) that intricately unravels, building gradually in suspense before reaching its eventual climactic point. The other narrators, Agnes and Daisy, are younger, more idealistic, and act to perfectly balance not only each other but the hardened cunning of Aunt Lydia. 

As in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s prose is elegantly crafted yet direct, but carries an altogether different mood. Whilst the earlier novel is driven by the sexual tension between characters, this sequel presents a far less contemplative and philosophical mood, and is instead carried by the increasing momentum of Aunt ’s conspiracy. 

She crafts a thought-provoking and stimulating read, which holds up a mirror to our own political climate

Yet, in this alternate mood, the more traumatic aspects of Atwood’s 1985 dystopian realisation are maintained: ritualised and institutionalised rape, child marriage, male supremacy, corrupt leadership, and the withholding of information by those at the top of the food chain. She does not shy away from the horrors of female subjugation presented in the work, neither does she sugar-coat the theocratic regime which she has created as she unashamedly presents the moral corruption of those in authority. 

In Atwood’s determination to draw inspiration from the events of history to inspire her brutal dystopian world, she crafts a thought-provoking and stimulating read, which holds up a mirror to our own political climate.

Image by veesees via Flickr

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