Unless you only get your news from a Donald Trump authorised news source, you’d know that The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s recently released sequel to The Handmaids Tale. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale when I first read it a few decades ago. It had great world building and created a believable brutal vision of a right-wing theocracy in an almost post-apocalyptic US (Gilead). I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale about a year and a half ago for a university course, where we studied the text in-depth, so it was still relatively fresh in my mind as I read The Testaments. I have not watched any of The Handmaid’s Tale television series, so maybe people who have will have made different connections to The Testaments than I did, and have different reactions.
The Testaments takes us back to Gilead 16 years after The Handmaid’s Tale. It tells the story from three points of view. From that of a 16 year-old-teenager whose mother escaped with her from Gilead to Canada when she was a baby. One of the four head Aunts who is complicit in imposing the strict regime of oppression on the women of Gilead is the second storyteller. The final storyteller is a teenager who has grown up in Gilead and flees an attempted arranged marriage to wind up joining the Aunts.
The story has a plot, which is not fully explained by the author. Atwood leaves it up to the reader to work out why some things happen rather than have one of the characters tell the reader why she is doing something. For example, I wondered why the Aunt chooses a particular courier to secretly transfer documents out of Gilead. A reader looking for plot holes might think they had found one as it took me a while to figure out the reasons that particular courier was chosen.
The novel switches back and forth from each point of view, but unlike many novels that use this technique, I wasn’t regretting the frequent change of viewpoint as I was keen to find out more of that person’s story. This indicates that all the story lines were equally important and not dominated by one main story line with interrupting subplots. The plot cohesively enveloped the whole novel.
I found the novel a real page-turner and read its 400 pages in five sittings, which is very quick for me. I particularly enjoyed discovering more about how Gilead came into being and the origins and motivations of the original Aunts.
The Testaments’ words flow off the page. Atwood is very much a writer who writes for readers. She would rather impress with her ideas, themes and story than with the cleverness of her word usage. I have read four of her other novels, including the excellent Maddaddam trilogy, so she is one of my favourite authors.
The Testaments has a much more definite ending than the somewhat ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s Tale. Overall, I think The Testaments is an excellent end to the world of Gilead, but it is not as good as The Handmaid’s Tale as it created Gilead and the belief system imposed on the people there. I think The Handmaid’s Tale would have been a more worthy winner of the Booker Prize. But The Testaments is still a great novel, from a great writer of speculative fiction.