With The Testaments being the most hyped book in recent years my expectations were high. Few books since Harry Potter have been so highly anticipated—a major midnight launch in London, a Booker Prize nomination two months before release and endless speculation across media platforms. I was eager to get reading as soon as my gorgeous signed copy arrived through the letterbox.
I by no means expected this sequel to match the brilliance of The Handmaid’s Tale, but after just a few pages it felt strikingly different from its predecessor. While The Testaments comprises an intriguing narrative that adds an enthralling exposition to the world of Gilead, unfortunately, it lacks some of the unforgettable aspects I loved in Offred’s tale.
Set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is told through three separate narratives—or rather, testimonies—of drastically different characters: the intimidating Aunt Lydia, one of the earliest founding converts of Gilead who has risen to utmost power; Agnes, a Gilead-grown teenager who has only known life inside the theocracy; and Daisy, a young Canadian who was smuggled out of the next-door dictatorship when she was a baby.
First, we learn more about the terrifying totalitarian world of Gilead: its corrupt realities and inner workings are revealed through the calculated Aunt Lydia. Reading from her perspective was fascinating; offering a self-reflective, sometimes melancholy, tone while often addressing her future reader. The moral ambiguity which emanates from her and her fellow Aunts is one of the most engrossing aspects of the story. It’s Lydia’s subversive plotting to exact revenge on those who created Gilead which provides the page-turning plot. However, it was at the sacrifice of character development.
Yes, Agnes’s perspective gives us a wider insight into the oppressive life in Gilead and when juxtaposed with Daisy’s we understand just how rigid, hierarchical and corrupt the autocracy is. However, their perspectives were less introspective, and gone is the clever language which I so loved throughout Offred’s musings. The younger girls’ perspectives lacked poetic prose and rather bordered on resembling a Young Adult narrative voice.
Moreover, the tenor between reader and writer is stronger than ever while discussing poignant topics predominate in today’s political climate. Some of the criticism of this books denounces that it is too heavy-handed, that it’s too obviously a condemnation of our current times. However, I believe we need more books like this right now. Throughout the narrative, Atwood comments on environmental catastrophes, unemployment, economic crises, while illustrating her corrupt world—all significant issues in contemporary society.
This sequel aptly ties in with the ending of the TV adaptation’s third season, appeasing the appetites and expectations of fans of the franchise. However, it lacks the distinct elegance and nuance of the former. The central message of resistance against female oppression is just as central as in The Handmaid’s Tale, but is it worthy of the Booker Prize? I’m not so sure.
Finally, closing the book, some of my burning questions were left unanswered, but honestly, that’s okay. Atwood has wholly developed the world which I found both fascinating and terrifying in The Handmaid’s Tale. While this isn’t a new favourite book of mine, there’s no denying that Atwood is a literary icon and I’m happy this story exists.
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: September 2019
Rating: 3.5 stars
Have you read The Testaments yet? What are your thoughts?