The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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Category: Dystopian Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Defying expectations, as ever, Atwood brings her eye to events that take place inside and outside of Gilead fifteen years after the end of the Handmaid's Tale. Pacy, intricate and written with intricate clever detail.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: September 2019
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784742324

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Finally! Almost forty years on, we have a sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. I don't want to tell you too much about the plot because it's a novel that is entirely plot-driven. Suffice it to say that The Testaments takes place fifteen years later, fifteen years after Offred gets into a van, not knowing what will happen next. It's told by three narrators: Aunt Lydia, who is secretly writing her memoirs in Ardua Hall; Agnes, a girl brought up in Gilead with the expectation she will marry a commander; Daisy, a rebellious teenage girl in Canada who knows of Gilead only from school lessons and its Pearl Girl missionaries who occasionally call into the store owned by her parents......

How are these women connected? And what does it mean for Gilead? And that's all you're getting!

Atwood can be a confounding writer. She's not compliant. She doesn't give you what she gave you last time and it doesn't feel at all as though she is concerned about giving you what you want. I love this! The Testaments is nothing like The Handmaid's Tale. It's told by testimony so lacks the immediacy and blindfolded tension of Offred's narrative. We're not peering through a handmaid's winged bonnet at a partial view: we're invited to take those confusing crumbs that Offred gifted us and watch as Aunt Lydia, Agnes and Daisy fill in the gaps - albeit fifteen years later. Little is left to the imagination and, in a strange way, this makes the whole thing much less horrific, even though it is full of bloodthirsty violence and degrading sexual detail. Some reviews I have read are disappointed by this - they wanted more blind alleys to follow and dissect in the Gilead universe. I rather liked it. In Testaments, Atwood has her characters defying men while she herself defies some of its predecessor's most devoted fans.

It's intricate and full of painful imagery - the paedophile dentist is like a large, hot crab as he gropes his victims. It's pacy and urgent. But there's also room for some dreadful puns that make you cringe and laugh bitterly - women are not permitted to read and write in Gilead unless they are aunts and Lydia has the effrontery to say to a top commander Not for nothing do we at Ardua Hall say "Pen Is Envy". A paring of risk and mot juste that is so typical of the way Atwood plays with her readers.

It's not perfect. The escape that takes place in the latter half of the book has a bit of the Keystone Cops about it at the outset and remains equally improbable throughout. And I felt the death of one character was elided, which missed a great opportunity for an emotional connection in a book filled with hard-to-love characters. But I'm not going to nitpick. We wanted to see where Atwood would go with the world she created and she's shown us. I left The Testaments both unsettled and unrestful and satiated and satisfied and I think that may well have been the intention.

Of course, recommended. Atwood looks at the relevance of the past, rather than the future, to today in Alias Grace - a clever, intricate novel with an unforgettable unreliable narrator. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall is a rich, heady dystopian novel in which childbirth is discouraged, not celebrated, and women are compulsorily fitted with a contraceptive coil. You might also appreciate The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo and Lola Rogers (translator).

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