Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Book - The Testaments by Margaret AtwoodThe Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, set fifteen years later, and told through the voices of three very different women. These tales are presented as testimonies, all written in past tense, with the benefit of hindsight, but without too much of a hint at how things might eventually work out.  

In Witness Testimony 369A, we meet Agnes, a young girl growing up in Gilead, aware that she is extremely limited by the society in which she lives, yet seemingly powerless to do anything about it. She rebels in just a few small ways that seem pointless and silly, but the seed is sown for what comes later, as she begins to discover that everything around her is built on lies, even the story her so-called mother told her about where she came from. The more she learns, the more she begins to see how much her world has been manipulated by those in charge.

In Witness Testimony 369B we hear from Daisy, a young girl growing up in Canada with her overprotective parents, who learns about Gilead in school. She feels sorry for the ‘Pearl Girls’ (Gilead missionaries looking for converts) who visit her parents’ second hand clothes store, and through her we see a mirror image of ourselves – dimly aware of the suffering of others, in other parts of the world, whilst living in our own bubble of comfortable democracy. Then, one day Daisy is confronted with the truth of her own identity, and asked to play a significant role in seeking to destroy Gilead for good.

The third voice comes from the very top – Aunt Lydia, one of the co-founders of Gilead, is a woman who wields immense power. She writes the Ardua Hall Holograph, a secret memoir, detailing her own story from before the coup, and her part in the creation of what came to be a misogynistic dictatorship. Her tale is one of the most interesting, as it propels the reader into a difficult position – to consider what you yourself would do when put under pressure to conform, when it becomes a matter of survival:

“I made choices, and then, having made them, I had fewer choices. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one most travelled by. It was littered with corpses, as such roads are. But as you will have noticed, my own corpse is not among them…”

Aunt Lydia is the one we most want to love, the architect of something clever and potentially incredible, whilst we are forced to see that she is also ruthless, and the architect of something truly horrific. Atwood has got the balance just right – it is almost impossible to view her in one way or the other.

All three characters are believable, and fascinating in their own way. But there are some aspects of the plot, towards the end of the book, that I found a bit too coincidental, a bit too perfect. It felt as if the ending was rushed, and could have been extended further. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, this book also ends with a dive forward in time, a glimpse of how history might look back on these stories, debate their truth and the roles played by their authors. This gives the reader a sense of disconnection, after living with the characters for so long, that is unnerving, and adds a feeling of disbelief. It makes you consider how you judge the stories you hear in the news, and how we can ever know if someone is telling the truth.

I like the way Atwood portrays the plight of the refugee, and the surreal experience of moving from one culture to another. And it’s also clear that this sequel is much more of an easy-read, more of a page-turner than the first book. But I do feel slightly disappointed that nothing truly unexpected occurs – Atwood has given her fans exactly what they wanted, more of the same.

Buy a copy of The Testaments by Margaret Atwood here.

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