Wednesday 23 October 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My work has been a bit crazy this year. And during August and September it was hectic and full of changes. So a lot of the hype surrounding the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale passed me by. I saw some excited chattering on blogs, twitter and goodreads. I heard some of the discussion around it's long-listing for the Booker Prize before publication date. And I caught a fleeting glimpse of the embargo breach by Amazon.

But until the day before the Booker announcement, I hadn't really given The Testaments much thought. Obviously I wanted to read it. I usually love Atwood's stuff and I LOVED The Handmaid's Tale. But it would have to be twenty years since I last read it.

When I first read it in my twenties it made me furious (in that good bookish way when a book excites your passions). A reread, a few years later in my early thirties, confirmed that it could still enrage me (in that good bookish way when a book can get under your skin).

Sadly, I missed the recent Elizabeth Moss tv adaptation of the book.

My plan had been to reread The Handmaid's Tale prior to starting The Testaments. I was in no hurry; knew I would get around to it one of these days, so I just let it sit in the back of my mind for later on.

Until Monday afternoon last week, when my new boss asked me who I thought would win the Booker. I had been so busy, I hadn't even clocked that it was that time of year again. Not having read any of the shortlist, all I could go on was my gut feel that Atwood would win. Her book had the hype, her writing was guaranteed to be good and it seemed like the safe option.

Tuesday morning.

I was up early, getting ready for work, thinking a million other thoughts about all the things I needed to prioritise at work that day. As I sat down to eat breakfast, I glanced at twitter and suddenly realised that the Booker Prize was about to be announced. I quickly found the facebook feed so that little old me, all the way across the other side of the world on a completely different day, could watch the Monday night announcement in London, live! Don't you just love technology.

And joint winners!

Didn't see that coming at all.

Without even thinking about it, I raced up to my bedroom, grab The Testaments from beside my bed and read the first chapter before work.

Any thought of rereading The Handmaid's Tale first went straight out the window - my justification being to see if one could read The Testaments without having any, or much knowledge of the first. I was going to offer myself up as a reading guinea pig!

So what did I remember about The Handmaid's Tale after all this time?

None of the names for starters, except that the Handmaids were named after the man - 'Offred' 'Ofthomas' etc. The handmaids were basically baby making machines. For some reason the wives were not able to produce healthy babies of their own. Religious ritual was evolved to make the baby making thing palatable. I remember that, in the end she (the main character, the titular Handmaid) must have escaped, or at least her story had got out, as she was being studied in a future history class or symposium. I remember that it was religious fanaticism that created Gilead, that this regime was still fairly new as people could remember a time before. I remember thinking that the parallels with our times were frighteningly familiar - which is the trademark of all truly good sci-fiction writing - to make it just enough like our world to make it seem possible. I recall that our Handmaid, either rediscovered her old boyfriend or established a new connection with a driver or guard or someone who helped her plan her escape. I believe the ending was deliberately unclear about the success of this mission. I loved it. It was feminist and very critical of the role religion plays in keeping women in their place.

What were my initial reactions as I started The Testaments?

Firstly I was confused by the names. I couldn't remember if any of these people had been in the first book. Aunt Lydia? Commander Kyle? Not sure.

But I was soon delighted to discover that this didn't matter very much, as what I was getting here was the back story that filled in all the gaps. Via various narrators we saw how Gilead was created, how the rest of the world responded to this change as well as various hints and rumours about the story surrounding our earlier Handmaid and what happened to her and her baby.

I've read that some people have been disappointed or underwhelmed by Atwood's latest offering, but I thoroughly enjoyed being back her capable hands.

It didn't move me as strongly as I recall being moved by The Handmaid's Tale. This book felt less political, less feminist, less concerned with religion, less personal and dare I say, less urgent. Perhaps the chorus of voices diluted the power that I experienced with the first Handmaid's story. Maybe I've mellowed with age. Perhaps Atwood has. Or it could be a simple as the purpose of the story. The Handmaid's Tale asked questions and left lots unanswered. The gaps allowed for supposition, insecurity, fear and doubt. The Testaments tidied all of that up. And without giving away the ending, the homage to the first book at the end of the second, was satisfying and offered a number of pleasing resolutions.

Naomi @Consumed by Ink and Marcie @Buried in Print are hosting Margaret Atwood Reading Month in November that will include a readalong of The Handmaid's Tale and The Testaments. I'm the rebel who will be reading the books in reverse order as I'm hoping to squeeze in a reread of The Handmaid's Tale along with ALL the other blogging commitments I have on my plate for November!

To finish up, I want to bring to light a little known Aussie connection to Atwood. Well, I didn't know this - perhaps you did?

In the Sydney Morning Herald on the 16th Feb 2019, Nick Bryant wrote,

Her connection with the Sunshine State comes from her second husband, the novelist Graeme Gibson, whose father emigrated there from Canada in search of a friendlier climate and cleaner air. "Every time we got invited to Australia we would go up to Brisbane to visit the rellies," she says, laughing. "His mother and his grandmother were from there." 

Longlisted for The Giller Prize 2019


  1. Excellent review of this popular book. I too remember exactly what you do about The Handmaids Tale. I bet I'd feel much of what you did if or when I read this one. However, since there's many books competing for attention, and I owe her Assassin title, and Janakay loves that one, I may go for that one first. I believe I'd like that Assassin's Tale (?) title. I forgot, -you know which one I'm talking about-. I started it when I just bought it, and had to leave it because it wasn't my time to read it yet, but I can see how she's a favorite among many. She surely can write.

    I was also commenting on how it's difficult to have 100 percent consistency. She's written, -I'm talking by what I hear-, master pieces, and other books, not so good. I was also saying how I understand that contemporary writers want to and need to make money too. And sometimes they may write something taking advantage of a popularity momentum, and to me, that's fine. She's a literary quality author, why shouldn't she enjoy the fame and get the profit that others enjoy?

    1. Your comments have made me realise that there is obviously a lot more discussion going on around the joint winner situation than I had realised. I didn't know that people thought she might have been cashing in with this story. It never even crossed my mind as I was reading this. I had always thought that there would have to be a follow up to The Handmaid's Tale as there were so many loose ends just waiting to be tied up. For me it was an "at long last" moment.

      The Blind Assassin was one of my favourites. She writes in a number of different genres, so not every likes the ones in areas not their usual reading style. I struggled with Oryx and Crake, even though the ending blew me away. It was worth persisting, even though I haven't read the other two in the trilogy.

      My first Atwood was The Robber Bride, which I enjoyed so I read most of her backlist, which I found a little hit or miss, although always compelling somehow. Alias Grace is one of my all time favourites though. Would love to reread it one day. And I have The Penelopiad on my TBR pile for one day.

    2. The "cashing in" was part my own speculation incited by a discussion with Janakay, but part something that was "out there", since she came up with this book at the onset of the TV series. I'm glad to hear you liked Blind Assassin, and I'm also taking note of Alias Grace. (I LOVED LOVED the TV adaptation I watched of that one). It's something remarkable how well her books translate into the screen, -granted that we all know it's a translation of sorts, that often doesn't quite follow the book, which I consider totally legitimate.

  2. I didn't know the Aussie connection - very cool!

    I enjoyed hearing how you came to read The Testaments, and will be curious to hear your thoughts on reading the books backwards. Thanks for joining in and linking to our event! :)

    1. I just hope I can find the time to fit all my Nov reading & blogging plans in!!

  3. That's so interesting, that you didn't find this volume quite so urgent. I would have guessed it would have been the other way 'round, if I'd had to guess. I'm super looking forward to reading this and I hope you do have time to reread Handmaid's to see how much you feel you accurately remember/ed. Also, thanks for the MARM shout-out!

    1. I also thought there may have been a modern day twist to the politics that might resonate more now, but I didn't feel that in the end. The world of Gilead actually felt further away and less likely than it did when I was in my twenties.

  4. Very interesting and I love your story of how you came to read it. Funnily enough, when the announcement came out, I rushed online and bought a copy of Girl, Woman, Other, to "encourage" Bernadine Evaristo, although I was always going to borrow Ali's copy (I'm OK with the share and having heard and seen a couple of interviews with Atwood, I don't personally feel she was 'cashing in' but that she realised the love for Handmaid's Tale was never going to go away and that advances in equality etc were retreating and she wanted to show how you can become 'that person' from the inside out). I really enjoyed Testaments, having had time to reread Handmaid's Tale first, and it was all that I wanted it to be. Husband really enjoyed the audiobook, too.

  5. I was lucky enough to be at a talk she gave at UNSW this year and a question I submitted was chosen to be asked. I work at Australia's largest online bookstore as well and the Testaments has been selling like hotcakes. Definitely need to read it at some stage but I have so many other books on my list....


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