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  • Articles by Sonali

    Book review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

    ‘The Testaments’, Margaret Atwood’s much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale concludes the dystopian fable set in Gilead, a fictionalised United States. The book is an engaging read, continuing with the same themes, namely the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, and some of the same characters as The Handmaid’s Tale. The 2019 Booker prize was controversially awarded jointly to The Testaments and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and one can’t escape the feeling that Atwood was given the Booker, not for the book’s merit, but for her ‘contribution to culture’ and to honour her ‘titanic career’, as revealed by judge, Afua Hirsh in a gaffe.

    The events in The Testaments take place 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ends and has 3 narrators. These first person narrations take the form of testimonials from Aunt Lydia and newcomers Agnes and Daisy. Their stories are interleaved in short, easy to read, fast paced chapters.

    Aunt Lydia’s chapters are the most compelling. According to the story these were penned by her in secret. The chapters represent her bid for redemption. They provide some background information on her past and record the tortuous ordeal she underwent before propping up the totalitarian regime at Gilead as an Aunt.

    ‘Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous hate mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive. They knew that so well the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.’

    We hear about Aunt Lydia’s work colleague Alice who is also rounded up with her and undergoes torture. Alice, unlike Aunt Lydia, refuses to cooperate with the regime and is executed. Teenager Agnes is the ‘daughter’ of one of the commanders and grows up under Gilead’s totalitarian regime. Agnes has a relatively normal and privileged childhood. The trouble starts when Agnes reaches puberty. At this point she becomes a prospective bride for one of the seedy commanders.

    Daisy’s testimony is the least convincing. She is a schoolgirl living in Canada where Baby Nicole, who escaped from Gilead, is idolised as a symbol of freedom. Daisy becomes involved in a plot to infiltrate Gilead and topple the regime. Her strain of the story reads like teenage fiction, including a chapter when she dresses down to look like a homeless person to catch the attention of the new emissaries from Gilead, the Pearl Girls.

    This mention of Baby Nicole connects the book to the Hulu TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale which Atwood was consulted on. There is a synergy here in terms of imagery in the book which is instantly recognisable from the series. Huge, mainstream success and the contemporary resonance of the series has made Margaret Atwood a household name. The Testaments will definitely appeal to her new, wider fanbase, although fans of her other books might be underwhelmed and a little confused.

    The Testaments takes a different angle though in terms of turning the focus away from the Handmaids to the Aunts, Marthas and the Pearl Girls, who are sent to recruit women from Canada and elsewhere bringing them back to Gilead. It also offers an insight into the Aunts’ rivalry. The main issue is that the book doesn’t challenge the reader or open up any sort of new territory. This is compounded further by a predictable and plodding ending.  

    At the back of the book Atwood says the novel was written in response to a demand for a sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale. Apparently several rogue versions of the ending have already appeared on the internet. When asked if she was worried about meeting fans’ expectations, Atwood was unequivocal, “Will this ruin my future, my literary reputation?...But it’s not a chief concern of mine.”

    There is no denying Margaret Atwood’s contribution to contemporary culture and fiction. But although the Testaments is a decent read it isn’t emblematic of Margaret Atwood’s career or body of work.  Better to read Alias Grace, a reminder of her incisiveness and subtlety as a writer of fiction.

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