There was a huge amount of buzz around the release of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments when it came out in 2019. People queued to get a hold of the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and it was widely met with approval and accolades, culminating it its being awarded a shared Booker Prize (shares with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other).
It seems relatively clear that Atwood wrote this book in response to the enormous appetite for it produced by the success of its TV adaptation. At the end of The Testaments, she notes that one of the most frequently asked questions put to her over the years has been that of how Gilead’s downfall came about; she frames this book as her response to that query. For those unfamiliar with both the earlier book and the show, Gilead is a country that has seceded from the USA to put in place an authoritarian government that seeks to control with particular stringency women and their bodies – more of a hop than a leap of the imagination.
The novel (if it is really a novel) is made up of three narrative strains, each a ‘testament’ of its own. The first is the written account of an Aunt of high position within the Gilead authorities, who will soon enough become familiar to fans. The second is the oral testimony of a young woman raised in the house of a respected Commander. The third is another oral account given by a girl growing up in neighbouring Canada. The book’s artistry lies in its slowly but surely bringing these narrative strands towards each other.
Atwood is obviously an excellent writer, and The Testaments is a well-executed and well-written response to an audience’s hunger to know more about the world so convincingly produced in both the earlier book and its adaptation. Its critique of a crushingly patriarchal system, as well as its envisioning of that system’s eventual vanquishing are compelling, and they remain worryingly relevant. On the other hand, it has little of the verve, the intellectual excitement, or opacity, of its antecedent. For instance, where an addendum at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale has the disquieting effect of destabilising the framework in which the reader encounters the bulk of the novel, a similar device at the end of The Testaments is shorn of all bristles and serves rather to comfort and reassure its audience of a happy ending for nearly all. Part of the appeal of the earlier book was that it gave its readers no such comforting platitudes; this later text is all smooth edges.
It’s a good book and a fine read, but at the end one is left wondering whether fans should always get what they ask for. It’s a strikingly unoriginal conclusion for this review to come to, but the sequel just wasn’t as good as the first instalment.