Booker 2019: The Testaments

16th September 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Vintage, Chatto & Windus

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The Testaments has a lot to live up to: the hype (it has been feverishly anticipated as ‘the literary event of the year’*); the ‘ferocious’ non-disclosure agreement signed by the Booker judges before copies were released to them; the iconic status of its predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the popularity of the television show of the same name (a ten-part dramatisation, followed by two further series developing the story, with Atwood as consultant).

The Republic of Gilead (the totalitarian theocracy where the stories are set) has its roots in 17th century puritanism and misogyny. It occupies a dystopian America in which social and gender restrictions are fiercely enforced, and certain women of childbearing age are ritually raped in order to produce babies for the powerful. Women are stripped of all their rights: legal, financial, political, biological. Atwood’s creation is now a phenomenon of popular culture, its visual imagery (the red cloak of the handmaids) adopted by human rights protestors across the globe, and its sinister oppression not as dystopian as we’d like it to be. Indeed, when she wrote it, Atwood chose not to include anything ‘that had not already happened’ somewhere in the world.

Fifteen years after The Handmaid’s Tale closed, and 35 years after it was written, Atwood takes us back into Gilead, where the regime is under threat from without and within. The Testaments follows The Handmaid’s Tale but to call it a sequel is misguided. It co-exists, lurking in the shadows of its predecessor. Theoretically it stands as a story in its own right, but it relies on the concept of the earlier book. Those who have watched the tv series are also privileged with knowledge of characters and actions that sit outside the literary works. It’s interesting, in a post-modern kind of way, that the written word is not enough; that other media are intruding into what a novel is. Look out for a Gilead app, coming soon to a smartphone near you.

There are three narrators, including one ‘who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets’. While Gilead totters, we read about how it began… but this is history, told through the eyes of a survivor – who charts her trajectory from victim to collaborator – and despite the horror it depicts, we are at one remove, and the intensity is diminished.

The Testaments lacks the shock factor and slow menace of The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s mild peril rather than utter terror, and – overall – more brightly, breezily written. While Aunt Lydia is coldly believable, the sections narrated by Agnes and Daisy are disappointingly unsophisticated, lacking depth and credibility in character, writing and plot: simplistic enough to be marketed as ‘young adult fiction’ and not very challenging YA at that.

It’s a page turner – a thriller, essentially: heavily plotted and carefully constructed, although some of the twists and reveals are signposted a mile off. It’s a spin-off that fills in the gaps about Gilead, but, really tells us nothing more about the world. If we were looking to Atwood to be prophetic or denunciatory about the times in which we live, we are dissatisfied here. She is a great writer, a great visionary – but this is far from being her best novel. I doubt it will win the cult following of The Handmaid’s Tale.

*The fact that a few hundred copies of The Testaments slipped out from behind their embargo and were delivered early to customers in the States is ironic. It’s the sort of mistake that could never happen in Gilead: Aunt Lydia would never allow it. Unless it suited her, of course.

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