Review: The Testaments

I acquired Margaret Atwood’s novel The Testaments from just before my son-in-law dumped a pile of his completed summer reading on me. Some of it actually looks quite interesting, but Margaret came first.

This is her novel which won the Booker Prize in 2019, is pretty much a sequel to her The Handmaid’s Tale which was published in 1985, and which I haven’t yet read.

The flyleaf of The Testaments say that ‘Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Atwood has won numerous awards. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.’

Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is a dystopian novel set in the what was the northeastern United States in the twenty-second century in a military dictatorship which is strongly patriarchal, totalitarian and theonomic. It is called the Republic of Gilead. Women are not allowed to read, write or own property and are divided into classes, each with a distinctive dress. Most importantly, they are deprived of their reproductive function. Wives are the highest class, Marthas are the servants, Handmaids main role to to provide children to male Commanders (infertility is a problem owing to radiation and chemical pollution), Aunts train the Handmaids, and Econowives constitute the major segment of the female population. There are also unmarried girls dressed in white and widows in black. Mayday is a secretive resistance movement in Gilead, and the Pearl Girls are Mayday’s opponents. The Eyes are Gilead’s secret police.

There are three narrators in the novel: Aunt Lydia, an aging, cynical and powerful figure, and two young sisters in training, who become involved in Aunt Lydia’s scheme to bring down Gilead, whose Commanders have become self-serving and corrupt.

The novel is fast-moving and tension-filled. For some one who in not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale it can be a little bit difficult to get ‘the lay of the land’. Sometimes I also lost track of the historic relationships between characters. Nonetheless, the novel is fascinating in its complexity, its flawed, well-drawn characters, and its ever-shifting plot.

I would certainly recommend this novel to anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale. It will surely satisfy your hankering to know what happened next.

It’s my impression that The Testaments was selected as the joint winner with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo’s of the 2019 Booker Prize as a retrospective recognition that perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale should have won the 1985 prize. After all, the earlier novel was an enormous commercial success, presented the original dystopian landscape, which served as a controversial criticism by the author of the direction in which she saw America heading. It was also as tension-filled, peopled with flawed characters, and undoubtedly as well written as its sequel.

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