A review of “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

“The Handmaid’s Tale” was published in 1985 and the sequel “The Testaments” came out a full 34 years later in 2019 when it was that year’s joint winner of the Booker Prize. I reread the original novel before I went on immediately to read the sequel – such a wonderful pair of well-written and cleverly-constructed works.

“The Testaments” is set principally around a decade after “The Handmaid’s Tale” and, as well as the totalitarian and deeply misogynist state of Gilead in which all the events of the first novel occur, there are scenes in neighbouring Canada where, thanks to the Mayday organisation, some Handmaids manage to escape and a famous offspring of one of the Handmaids – Baby Nicole – is living.

There are three interesting differences between the two novels.

First, instead of one voice – the eponymous Handmaid of the “Tale” – there are three testaments: the writings of Aunt Lydia who was a stern instructress in the first novel and is now the 53 year old head of Ardua Hall, the headquarters of the powerful Aunts in Gilead; the recollections from Agnes of her life in Gilead from aged 13 to 23 during which time she leaves the home of a Commander to become an Aunt and missionary Pearl Girl; and the memories of Daisy, a 16 year old Canadian whose parents are murdered in a car explosion leading to a succession of revelations which turn her world upside down.

Second, whereas “Tale” was largely expository with little actual plot, “Testaments is full of action as the stories of the three voices converge in ways which are crucial to the future of Gilead. Third, whereas the first novel had a sudden and inconclusive ending, the sequel works its way to a clear and satisfying conclusion.

Atwood has written that an axiom of both the novels – and indeed the television adaptation of the first – is that no event in them does not have a precedent in human history and clearly the timing of publication of “The Testaments” owes something to the hostility towards women of current President Donald Trump and his administration. The novels are not a forecast but they are indubitably a warning.


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