Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

"The truth can cause a lot of trouble for those who are not supposed to know it."

Writing a followup to a classic like The Handmaid's Tale was a real risk. Hell, reading it was a risk – most readers wouldn't want to tarnish memories of the classic original with a lackluster sequel.

Fortunately, Margaret Atwood pretty much nailed it.

The Testaments takes place about 15 years after events in the first book. This time we follow the tale through writings or testimony of three women – the famed and feared Aunt Lydia along with two young women, one a girl from a prominent family in Gilead and another a teenager from outside the fray in Canada.

It's no secret that Gilead will eventually fall, as we learned at the end of The Handmaid's Tale via scenes from a symposium about it taking place 200 years after the events involving the handmaid Offred. With The Testaments, we witness the beginning of the end. In an interview in Variety, Atwood said she wanted to explore how that type of regime ceases to be. Luckily enough, she had Gilead in her back pocket crying out for an exploration of how it came to an end.

The device of using three distinct female voices to relate this story worked well. The chapters alternate between viewpoints, but the story is clear and easy to follow despite this. It helps that the start of each chapter indirectly identifies the speaker with a label of where the text originates and an icon (Aunt Lydia is represented by a quill, the girl from Gilead with an icon like that of the cover illustration, and the Canadian teen with a girl wearing a ponytail).

We don't experience the grim, trapped feeling as intensely as we did in The Handmaid's Tale. That's due in part to the fact that we didn't know until the end of the first book that Gilead eventually falls, but also because this book just doesn't hit the horrifying aspects as intensely as the first book. Make no mistake, the repression and misery of Gilead is still on display, but the volume is turned down quite a bit.

That may be why The Testaments doesn't pack the same emotional punch as its predecessor. There's also a key aspect of the story that doesn't feel believable to me, but I was able to just go with it. Perhaps it would have been less of a stretch if we focused on just one woman's story rather than three and there had been time to develop some events more fully, but then readers would've missed so much vital information from the other narrators. Not to mention, they would've lost the interesting contrast between the very different positions of the three women.

Small quibbles aside, I'm glad Atwood brought us this tale, and that she did it in one average-length book. It took me where I wanted to go in a satisfying way, even if the narrative falls a little short of the first novel. I give it five stars for pulling that off, imperfections and all.

The Testaments is an enjoyable, satisfying and ultimately hopeful read that still seems as relatable to our world as the first book. As Aunt Lydia wrote: "In times like ours, there are only two directions: up or plummet." Reading this book makes you feel that "up" is an option, no matter how hard-won it may be.

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