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The Testaments

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The much anticipated and longed for sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.  

 

Set more than 15 years after The Handmaid's Tale there are signs that the Gilead Regime is rotting from the inside.  There are three main characters, all women (of course) with Aunt Lydia still in charge.  Naturally, Aunt Lydia is dictating, to a certain extent, the events but she is portrayed as a lot smarter than the average dictator.  Insofaras she knows that Gilead is about to fall and, although she is taken by surprise occasionally seems to know exactly what to do to rectify the situation.

 

This is as good as the press says it is.  Highly recommended.

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I suspect I am not the only reader who came to The Testaments as a result of all the publicity (including a Booker shortlisting) and who read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time as a bit of background.

 

I would characterise the two books as The Handmaid's Tale being a book of ideas, and The Testaments as being a good story. 

 

In The Handmaid's Tale, we were introduced to a world that Margaret Atwood had created - Gilead - a Christian fundamentalist society in a near future United States, governed by a military/theocratic regime. Most of the novel seemed to be a pretext for offering the reader a guided tour of this world. Margaret Atwood's guiding principle was that she would only include rules/laws/customs that had already existed somewhere in the world. Although this may have conflated various oppressive societies, it did ground Gilead in plausibility. Whilst the novel placed women in oppressed roles that related to reproduction, there was a wider undercurrent of class structure where all members of Gileadan society - whether male or female - were placed into roles that had clear expectations and limitations with privilege being focused on the ruling class. Impressive though this was, the lack of a real narrative drive (yes, a plot) made it slow going. It read like a fictionalised misery-lit. 

 

So it was a relief to find The Testaments having a fundamentally different structure that included a plot. We have three rotating perspectives: Aunt Lydia, the tyrannical and manipulative head of Ardua Hall, a sort of finishing school for young women; Agnes, one of the young women in Ardua Hall; and Daisy, a Canadian girl observing events in Gilead from afar. There is still a bit of world building, but it is a relief to escape to the Canadian scenes. This creates perspective and human interest.. If there is a complaint, the three narrative strands can be quite hard to distinguish at first because their labelling - although overt - is still rather opaque. And also, because the characters are known by different names in different contexts it can be hard to tell exactly who is who - particularly between the young women of Ardua Hall. 

 

The story itself is one of espionage and peril; at times it is intriguing and at other times it is thrilling. There is plenty for the reader to catch hold of. The pacing seems right, the writing strikes the right balance between narrative and scene-setting, some of the imagery is fantastic. The characters feel real, which is a pretty good accomplishment given the constraints that the Gileadan society places on self-expression. The focus in The Testaments is very much on the oppression of women; this is the driver for the plot. The wider issues of class structure, social compliance and theocracy seem to have taken a back seat. 

 

There is one serious Achilles Heel in both books. They end with a coda - supposedly an academic lecture on the testaments left behind by the various Gileadans. The one in The Handmaid's Tale was so excruciating it was almost unreadable - including some comments that feminist readers did not like. The Testaments lecture references some of the readers' antipathy to the previous lecture, but it is still an irritation. Both dispel the sense of an ending that readers should have had at the end of the stories proper. And they aren't short, either. There is a sense of uneasiness that some of the plotting does rely on wild coincidences; for what must be such a large and populous nation, the same few characters seem to crop up in a variety of contexts. But if Dickens can do it, why can't Margaret Atwood?

 

Overall, though, The Testaments is an accomplished novel that is superior to The Handmaid's Tale in many ways, but could probably not have existed without it. 

 

****0

Edited by MisterHobgoblin

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I'm really heartened by these reviews, i read The Handmaid's tale when it first came out and was very impressed by it, but didn't like the TV series at all finding it a bit overblown. I was put off the Testaments by hearing it was written in response to the success of the TV series but it sounds like it's definitely worth reading.

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28 minutes ago, Viccie said:

I'm really heartened by these reviews, i read The Handmaid's tale when it first came out and was very impressed by it, but didn't like the TV series at all finding it a bit overblown. I was put off the Testaments by hearing it was written in response to the success of the TV series but it sounds like it's definitely worth reading.


I decided to watch the TV series after I finished The Testaments and gave up part way through the second programme.  The Testaments - as far as I'm aware - came about as a result of 35 years of constant asking by fans.  I'm sure, though, that the TV series did have something to do with it.

 

I'm going to stick my neck out and say that The Testaments is worth reading and if you enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale you will enjoy The Testaments.

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For the second time (following her win with The Blind Assassin in 2000), Margaret Atwood has (jointly) scooped the Booker prize for a novel which will doubtless not be remembered as being among her best.

 

 

There are those that say the sequel to – or spin-off from (opinions differ…) – The Handmaid’s Tale shouldn’t have been written. The open ending of The Handmaid’s Tale was gaping wide open, and was an essential element in the whole novel. But now that ambiguous ending has been rendered less so, albeit with a lack of details. And it seems abundantly clear that the sequel/spin-off would not have been written were it not for the interest generated by the film adaptation of the earlier work.

 

 

Of the three alternating narratives comprising The Testaments, that of Aunt Lydia is by far the most interesting and the most intriguing. She is the only narrator to have already featured as a character in The Handmaid’s Tale, and her development in the sequel/spin-off is highly unexpected. Many readers have questioned the plausibility of what she does; however it is Aunt Lydia’s narrative that both opens and closes the novel, and, plausible or not, she is a character with a conscience.

 

 

In sharp contrast to Aunt Lydia’s, the other two narratives are deliberately naïve and based on a lack of complete understanding of the situations in which the narrators, one inside Gilead and one outside, find themselves. The identities of those narrators (and their link to The Handmaid’s Tale) is gradually revealed, and from then on the novel develops into a will-they-or- won’t they/can-they-or-can’t-they thriller.

 

 

Which is rather unfortunate, to my mind, and definitely not what Atwood does best. Significantly, I identified with Aunt Lydia until the end, and conversely couldn’t, in the end, care less what happened to Agnes and Daisy (or whoever they are…)

 

 

I fully agree that the tacked-on epilogue is a serious mistake. If Atwood wanted to satirise academics (as she did in the similar epilogue to The Handmaid’s Tale), fair enough… but she could surely have done it elsewhere. And Aunt Lydia’s final sentence would have made a much more resonant conclusion to the novel as a whole.

 

****0

Edited by jfp

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