Wednesday 23 October 2019

Book Review ~ The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus
Penguin Uk
10 September 2019

✨✨ Winner of the Booker Prize 2019 ✨✨

More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.

Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.

What did I think about it..

I first picked up The Handmaid's Tale back in the nineteen eighties shortly after the book was published and was completely in awe of the author's imagination in bringing the troubled nation of Gilead into public conscientiousness.  I've read the story more than once and was so excited to see the book finally made visual in the Channel 4 adaptation. When I learned that this talented author felt that it was now time to revisit Gilead, some fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid's Tale, I was beyond excited and couldn't wait to see just what was happening in this dystopian world which is so vivid in my imagination.

The Testaments starts in a very different place, this is not the Gilead we remember from The Handmaid's Tale, nor is it a continuation of that particular handmaid's story. It is rather a more introspective look at the tenets and beliefs which make this theocracy so complicated and of the cracks and splinters which seem to threaten Gilead's continued existence. Throughout it all we have no better narrator than Aunt Lydia, the aunt who has always struck such terror into our hearts, and who now leads us piece by piece through the complicated maze of Gilead history. Being part of the cloistered world of the Aunts at Ardua Hall is a real privilege and I found especially fascinating the snippets about the Aunts themselves, and perhaps more importantly just how Aunt Lydia became the Aunt Lydia we remember from The Handmaid's Tale.

However, Aunt Lydia is not our only narrator through this complicated process, we also have the thought processes of two unnamed witness testimonies, who offer a rather detailed vision, one from one young woman who grew to maturity in Gilead, and the other who didn't, and together these two narratives offer a tantalising glimpse into two very different worlds. 

I think The Testaments is a very timely novel, perhaps in light of the TV adaptation and a new audience, there are questions which needed to be answered. Personally I think that the author has succeeded in drawing Gilead to a close and the literary world is all the richer for this conclusion.  Is it as powerful as the Handmaid's Tale, being honest, no it isn't, nor does it try to be, however, it succeeds on its own merits as a fascinating glimpse into a dark and cruel dystopian world. There's a real sense throughout The Testaments of the author tying up loose ends, drawing together the complicated threads of a story which needed to be explained in more detail. Does it answer every question, perhaps not, but I rather like that we don't get to know absolutely everything, and I feel comfortable with the way the story ended.

My advice would be to read The Testaments for its own sake, marvel at this skilful writer's ability to make this complicated world her own, but don't even try to read it before first reading The Handmaid's Tale.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Her novels include Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and the MaddAddam trilogy. Her 1985 classic, The Handmaid's Tale, went back into the bestseller charts with the election of Donald Trump, when The Handmaids became a symbol of resistance against the disempowerment of women, and with the 2017 release of the award-winning Channel 4 TV series. Atwood has won numerous awards including the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society, the Franz Kafka Prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019 she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

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