Book review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I reviewed Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ I was a little damning of the literary depth. It was, of course, brilliantly written – you can tell Margaret Atwood can handle the English language with immense skill – but I criticised the fact it told us little about the human condition and was more a parable of the abuses of religion. It was still a well-written and enjoyable yarn, but little more than that.

When I heard that she had produced this sequel, I initially decided I wouldn’t bother with it. But, for once, I paid attention to the top critics who were already hailing it as a masterpiece. I was coaxed into getting a copy. You won’t hear me say this very often but…the critics were right.

Atwood has grown considerably since she wrote the original book in 1985. At the time, Orwell’s 1984 was in the public imagination (for obvious reasons) and I suspect that she was writing a new dystopian vision no longer based on the imagined shackles of a Stalinist totalitarian regime, which barely worried us any longer, but on the slowly awakening religious powers around the world which, in that decade, still held great authority over people. As such, there was a feel of pastiche, of rewriting, to the book and I felt unable to connect with the characters.

In this sequel, we see a maturer Atwood, maybe one with an eye on the commercial gain of a sequel for a book written long ago but now suddenly blooming in the public’s gaze (thanks, perhaps, to the success of a certain American president causing so much concern and many seeing parallels). The novel is more accessible and feels more mainstream. There’s a greater sense of adventure, of build up to the inevitable, and of painting with a broader brushstroke to let us see a wider field of issues, not least being implicit criticism of the warfare between females (as well, of course, as the sisterhood of such). She also ties up loose ends left in the previous novel which (apparently) fans had been clamouring for resolution.

There is less of a sense of ‘all religion is evil’ in this sequel and more of ‘all humans can do bad things and be very cunning about doing so’, which I like. With that is a sense of rooting this futuristic vision into the real world of now. Outside of Gilead, there is a still a world we might conceive of as ours. As a result, this book feels more earthy, more real, less esoteric.

Although I’m giving it five stars, because I thoroughly enjoyed the tale and thought it a huge improvement on the original, I do still have the same gripe about the epilogue as I did with the first book. Atwood has followed the same structure as she did in the original, ending with a transcript of an even further future historical conference. I’m sure this comes from countless attendances at such conferences herself, but it simply doesn’t work as a device here. It feels false, almost amateurish and certainly belongs to pulp fiction rather than literary. Apart from the fact that I doubt very much that such conferences will occur in the same format they do now around 100 years in the future, the sense that ‘records’ are lost or could be ‘disputed’ in some way seems highly unlikely. We’re given no sense that the kind of disaster which would send historical research back into the dark ages happens in the world of Gilead. ‘The Testaments’, by giving us a wider view only reinforce this fact. The epilogue is, frankly, a let down because it dispels the illusion Atwood manages to otherwise craft brilliantly.

Despite this, overall, the novel is a marvel. Solidly written, as you would expect, by an expert hand, it succeeds in all the places the first didn’t. I cared about these characters and I cheered them on. I worried what would happen and I was sad when tragedies occurred. This is the kind of book I wanted to read the first time, but at least now it makes the original novel worth reading again.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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