One of the most anticipated publishing events of the year, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments benefited from a 10-month pre-publication campaign, a now-iconic jacket and a joint Booker win to close 2019 as the bestselling hardback of the year.
Chair of the 2019 judges, Peter Florence, comments:
“This ten month process has been a wild adventure. In the room today we talked for five hours about books we love. Two novels we cannot compromise on. They are both phenomenal books that will delight readers and will resonate for ages to come.”
Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“The common thread is our admiration for the extraordinary ambition of each of these books. There is an abundance of humour, of political and cultural engagement, of stylistic daring and astonishing beauty of language. Like all great literature, these books teem with life, with a profound and celebratory humanity. We have a shortlist of six extraordinary books and we could make a case for each of them as winner, but I want to toast all of them as “winners”. Anyone who reads all six of these books would be enriched and delighted, would be awe-struck by the power of story, and encouraged by what literature can do to set our imaginations free.”
The commanders proudly keep sex slaves, and execute the women who resist: what secret thing could the supplicant aunts find out about the commanders that’s more shameful than what they’ve been doing openly? Nevertheless, the novel is one long caper: how will Aunt Lydia get her incriminating information, whatever it is, out to the foreign press and bring down the regime? She contrives for Offred’s daughter, now a teenager, to smuggle herself back into Gilead, so that the documents, reduced to a microdot, can be implanted in her arm; the plan is then to smuggle Nicole out of Gilead, via the resistance network, so that she can release the documents to the Canadian press. I can’t quite work out why it needs to be so complicated – Aunt Lydia has loyal spies, posing as missionaries, who travel between Gilead and Canada. Why can’t she just give them the microdot? Until the end of the novel, I mistakenly thought that it would all prove to be a dark comedy. It might once have been the case that all it would take to bring down a ruler was clear evidence of his corruption. If The Testaments were truly a novel for our times, after Aunt Lydia and her allies had succeeded in getting the documents out, after having risked, as they do in Atwood’s book, discovery and death in almost every chapter, journalists would write about them; and nothing would happen.
With The Testaments, though, we see the web from the outside; we’re the spider, not the fly. And while it’s satisfying to be able to spot at a glance where the web is weakest and watch the strands fray, the shift of perspective diminishes the richness and the sense of jeopardy. After the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale, the ease with which Gilead is hobbled is unconvincing. In these unnerving times, we want to believe that facts can bring down tyrants, we want to feel that evil can be undone. But novels should tell the truth, and the truth is surely more complicated than that. While The Testaments might be the book we want, therefore, it may not be the book we need.
From her three testaments, Atwood has conjured a compelling sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that is tautly plotted in spare, economical prose. It will appeal to readers who have never watched Hulu’s popular Emmy award-winning TV adaption, viewers who have never read the original novel first published in 1985, and people who have done both. In The Testaments, Atwood succeeds in regaining control of Gilead through words. Her authorial power is reflected in the dilemma experienced by Aunt Lydia: should she subvert the regime, give the violent and repressive Republic of Gilead ‘the first shove over the cliff’, or continue to profit from it?...No matter how famous she becomes, how flattered by comparisons to rock stars, or founders of sects, projected onto cinema screens, celebrated in cupcakes decorated to match the cover of her new book, Atwood is too fine and serious a writer to lose sight of the advice she gave her writing students in the days when she had some: ‘Respect the page. It’s all you’ve got.’
While The Testaments starts slow, particularly as it builds up its young characters and gets them to the point when they can actively participate in Lydia’s schemes, the novel eventually delivers powerful drama that strips away the gray of moral relativism and lets its heroes shine through feats of courage, sacrifice, and cunning.
Both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments end on a hopeful note, something that’s desperately needed after so many pages filled with horror and despair. If The Handmaid’s Tale was about one woman desperately trying to reclaim some scrap of agency and largely relying on the mercy of others, The Testaments is a far more empowering story of three women working together to make a difference for themselves and the world. It’s the sort of story that readers and viewers could use more of at a time when Gilead seems closer than ever.
As the cast list suggests, this is a chunky novel. Whereas the body of The Handmaid’s Tale was narrated from Offred’s perspective, The Testaments’ multi-plot texture gives it a far more panoramic scope. While it tackles the clashing of liberal and totalitarian regimes, it’s also a coming-of-age story – and Atwood grants her adolescent narrators convincing identities. Agnes’s deadpan account of the pregnancy of their resident Handmaid is a wonderful piece of eye-rolling: “the bigger she got, the more ecstatic our household became. I mean the women became ecstatic. As for Commander Kyle, it was hard to tell what he felt… but I suppose he was at least moderately thrilled about the ballooning of Ofkyle”... The Testaments contains much wit and brilliance, but its final shaping reduces it to something restorative but strangely bland. Like one of Aunt Lydia’s milky drinks, Atwood’s return to Gilead feels just that bit too easy to swallow.
Ingenuity has always delighted Atwood. Here she revels in it. Aunt Lydia’s ploys include a mini-camera that’s concealed in a graphic of a beaming set of teeth in the surgery of a sexually predatory dentist she entraps. A microdot storing crucial evidence is inserted behind a crucifix-shaped tattoo. The twists and turns of an extravagantly suspenseful final race for freedom are done with bravura relish.
Shrewdly, instead of weakening The Handmaid’s Tale’s assured status as a horror-paradigm of ideological tyranny by stretching out its fearfulness, Atwood has complemented her menacing masterpiece with a mordantly entertaining look at the monstrosities of Gilead on the brink of its dis-integration.
[The Testaments] is a plump, pacy, witty and tightly plotted page-turner that transports us straight back to the dark heart of Gilead and seems to take great pleasure in providing answers to many of Atwood’s readers’ questions... What is surprising, though, given that so many of Atwood’s actual details remain so gloriously dark (a paedophile dentist whose hand sits on a pubescent child’s breast “like a large hot crab” is an image that won’t leave me in a hurry), is that the story’s outcomes are anything but. Perhaps Atwood has simply decided that Gilead’s time is up – or maybe she’s grown too fond of her characters to deny them happiness – but in so many startling ways this novel feels like a straight antidote to The Handmaid’s Tale. Where the first book traded so pithily and memorably in obfuscation, despair and darkness, the sequel sees the lamps slowly lit... There is no doubt that Atwood is on top form here. But still it feels as if something crucial is missing... Another problem, which becomes more troubling as the novel unfolds, is the lack of emotional subtext, or indeed sometimes any subtext at all. In The Testaments, what you see is what you get, with any possibility of equivocation, shading or real complexity (or the chance for readers to imagine anything for themselves) sacrificed again and again to pace and plot... Perhaps because of this, there are few, if any, chances to feel moved on behalf of these characters – a strange and enervating absence in a novel that hinges so strongly on the agonies of familial separation.
Following up on a book like this was never going to be easy and The Testaments has a hard time of it. The main storyline of The Handmaid’s Tale ended with Offred, the narrator and central character, being bundled into a van and vanishing from view. Whether to safety or even greater danger was left open. But Atwood concluded on a hopeful note with an epilogue set in the 22nd century, long after the fall of Gilead. The Testaments picks up the story 15 years after Offred’s disappearance and retains the 22nd-century frame. Events are related through the voices of three new characters: Agnes, a “precious flower” who has grown up in Gilead and knows no other reality; Daisy, a sassy 16-year-old raised in the relative safety of neutral Canada, and Aunt Lydia, an architect of the regime, now in her seventies.
The expectations surrounding this sequel — already shortlisted for the Booker Prize — could scarcely be higher. But perhaps having an author who doesn’t feel fear but does it anyway helps explain why, despite having far more gruesome episodes than its predecessor — stonings, wrist-slittings, bridal sedations — the Testaments feels much less scary and rather more camp... The first half of the novel is gripping and full of incident, a deft balance of horror and wit. Atwood is at her best channelling Aunt Lydia, whose acid irony ripples through the prose... But overall the tone is unstable, lurching from tense confessional to Shakespearean lost-sibling farce. For all the blood, the atmosphere isn’t nearly as menacing as it was in The Handmaid’s Tale... The Testaments is an enjoyable romp but it’s not the blazing critique of totalitarianism that many fans were expecting. Nor does it advance our understanding of Gilead.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred refers, with amazing prescience, to “false news”: in The Testaments the news has turned “fake”. The word “slut” is more frequently employed, but otherwise there is no need to change what was, in 1985, so properly realised...Perhaps no other writer has managed her own phenomenon with so much grace and skill. The Testaments is Atwood at her best, in its mixture of generosity, insight and control. The prose is adroit, direct, beautifully turned. All over the reading world, the history books are being opened to the next blank page and Atwood’s name is written at the top of it. To read this book is to feel the world turning, as the unforeseeable shifts of the last few years reveal the same old themes. It is also a chance to see your own political life flash in front of your eyes, to remember how the world was 30 years ago and say: “If she was right in 1985, she is more right today.”
The highlight of the book is the memoirs of Aunt Lydia. They deal with torture, moral compromise and how to resist a totalitarian regime, and they do so with sensitivity. The plot which is focused on the younger characters is less believable. It seems written with an eye to the Occupy Movement, and #MeToo: what brings down regimes of terror is plucky young women, tattooed go-betweens and secretly resentful wise old owls. It is too much of its time... What, really, to make of this novel? Atwood is undoubtedly clever, and knows how to turn a sentence and keep the reader sprightly over the plot. It will no doubt appeal to those who have never read her other works (Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Hag-Seed are far better). But as I read it, I was reminded of a different Gilead entirely; Marilynne Robinson’s book with that title. It tried to explain how to be good in a world gone wrong; but Atwood’s sequel shows merely how to be angry at the world as it is.
A similar narrative arc might have been tempting for Atwood: to transform the Handmaid from victim to fully realised, regime-fighting rebel, ripping off her coned hat at some opportune moment. But The Testaments is all the better for choosing other, quieter forms of resistance for women under Gilead’s rule, and this helps it to stand apart. There are moments of touching solidarity and sacrifice throughout, but Atwood isn’t writing fanfiction of her own dystopian novel. The sequel is able to buoy you as a reader in a way The Handmaid’s Tale had no interest in doing, but sit with it and it’s still slippery and at times satisfyingly unsatisfying. This is an intriguing book from a woman who knows she can do bleak any day of the week.
Could the sequel possibly live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. The Testaments is a much more accessible book than its brilliant yet forbidding predecessor. At times it races along like a spy thriller written by Charles Dickens, rich in suspense, coincidence and messy humanity... I will never forget the chilling thrill of reading The Handmaid’s Tale when it first came out. I was so engrossed that I missed my stop on the Tube. Like the very best dystopian fiction, it had real toads in its imaginary garden. Atwood made you shudder to see how easily the rights and freedoms we take utterly for granted could disappear and tyranny become the new normal. This sequel will not go down as a landmark in fiction as that book did, but I gobbled it down none the less.
Already shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the book’s first half (a sizeable 200 pages) is a masterclass in storytelling and suspense. “Every woman is supposed to have the same set of motives, or else be a monster.” One of three epigraphs taken from George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, it is a fitting start to a book with three distinct narrators, who each bear witness to their experiences of Gilead.
Add a dash of #MeToo and a passing reference to “victim-blaming” and it becomes clear that Atwood is not simply returning to Gilead in the way that L Frank Baum repeatedly returned to Oz. Like all good dystopian writers, she presents us with a cracked mirror in which we are asked to see distorted images of ourselves... The main problem is that The Testaments is a sequel to a much better book. The original novel was built up in small sections, gradually revealing more of Gilead in each one with a combination of straightforwardness and stealth. The Testaments is a far brasher, flashier affair, full of the plot hooks and cliché-rich dialogue you would expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, and occasionally even winking at its own contrivance. “Now we have to work out where to go from here,” says a resistance fighter at one point, like a script editor holding a meeting of staff writers. It’s a rattling yarn, but that’s not just because the narrative moves so quickly; it’s because it is full of loose cogs and broken springs. Male characters are either wholly absent or cartoons of depravity... The Testaments is many things, including a gloomy warning about the current political climate, a celebration of sisterhood, and a sharp-eyed analysis of the power of stories to reshape the world. But it is not a great novel.
So The Testaments has a lot to live up to. As well as all that hype, there’s the genuine brilliance of its predecessor, which has become a touchstone in the age of Trump, and a hugely popular TV series. It cannot fully live up to all of that, but it can and does satisfy our hunger for more. It is an addictively readable, fast-paced adventure towards the collapse of Gilead, a totalitarian Christian state formed in a dystopian America, when falling fertility rates are countered via the sexual enslavement of women (the handmaids). No regime lasts forever – a point already hopefully made in the postscript of The Handmaid’s Tale – and The Testaments looks at how the first blows may be struck from within.
The horrors and repressions of Gilead, so shocking on first encounter, so convincingly realised, are here repeated. If you’ve seen one ululating birth, one man torn apart by Handmaids, you’ve seen them all. Atwood’s prose is as powerful as ever, tense and spare. She invests certain phrases with ironic fury: adulteress, precious flower, Certificate of Whiteness, fanatics, defiled. Her word games are ingenious. She forces you to think about language and how it can be made to lie. The plot is propulsive and I finished in six hours flat. But if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep. The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation: “Are there any questions?” Those questions were better left unanswered.
The power of words and storytelling to get under the skin and to change hearts and minds is a theme in all of Margaret Atwood’s books, and palpably so in her powerful new novel The Testaments, a terrifically wrought tale of horror and hope... Like many Atwood novels, The Testaments is a profound exploration of readership; some of the most haunting sections imagine a future reader. “Who are you, my reader? And when are you? Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps fifty years from now, perhaps never” – wonders Aunt Lydia as she herself rebels by telling her tale, writing her account n her private sanctum at one of the few libraries that remain after the book burnings. The Testaments is a formidable achievement that will doubtless be read in decades to come.
In The Testaments, Atwood’s newly released sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, things have changed. That famous “don’t let the bastards grind you down” invocation makes no appearance, but if it did, it wouldn’t feel ironic. It would feel aspirational. Because the three women who narrate The Testaments are emphatically not ground down.
That’s part of what makes The Testaments a very different book from The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments also takes place in Gilead, Atwood’s famous dystopia, 17 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale — but it’s not at all nightmarish. It contains very little of that claustrophobic dread that Atwood is so good at conjuring up... It’s fun to read. It’s beautifully written. But it feels less honest than The Handmaid’s Tale did. And for that reason, it’s hard to imagine it having the same kind of grand legacy.
The Testaments is fun to read in a way that The Handmaid’s Tale is not, fun in the same way that the TV series, for all its grim lighting and performances, is crowd-pleasing. Its characters are not powerless or crushed. Aunt Lydia, it is soon revealed, is secretly working toward Gilead’s downfall. Clever Agnes Jemima, another of the book’s new narrators, who was raised to be a docile wife to a Gilead commander, begins to have doubts. Daisy, a smart-mouthed teenager, is both refreshingly irreverent and hopelessly naïve. “I thought I knew what was wrong with people then,” she recollects during her testimony, “especially adult people. I thought I could set them straight.”... All of this and a corker of a plot, culminating in a breathless flight to freedom, makes The Testaments a rare treat. The Handmaid’s Tale, while magnificent, was never that. But—let’s not kid ourselves—that’s because, of the two novels, it is the least reassuring, the least flattering, and, sadly, the most true.
True to her mandate, Atwood has given us a blockbuster of propulsive, almost breathless narrative, stacked with twists and turns worthy of a Gothic novel. Its characters are as lurid and schematic as its clever front-cover image (a woman in a bonnet in neon green), but, like the jacket picture too, impressive in their gestural efficiency. Because everyone can recognise that bonnet now: the wide deep hat, shorthand for the puritanical Gilead and its misogynistic mores, has so permeated our culture thanks to the recent TV adaptation that Kylie Jenner mistook it for a fashion item... John Lanchester’s The Wall, which shared a place on the Booker longlist with The Testaments but didn’t join it on the shortlist, is the more elegant piece of dystopian fiction published this year. (Both books boast an ominous sheer rampart.) But it is Atwood’s book that has the dramatic thrust and power to shock to scorch the memory.
For The Testaments take us to a subtly altered Gilead and, in many ways, a more hopeful one. Its structures are weakening; the myths it has told its citizens are beginning to lose their hold. The Eye under which its women must conduct their constricted, stolen lives is beginning to flicker... Atwood has had to deal with a high degree of readerly acquaintance with her world and proceed carefully. The brutality is still evident; the descriptions of errant men being ripped apart by Handmaids, or of the incarceration of women prior to their deportation to Gilead, are still shocking... Atwood’s task in returning to the world of her best-known work was a big one, but the result is a success that more than justifies her Booker prize shortlisting.
The main story line in “The Testaments” is a kind of spy thriller about a mole inside Gilead, who is working with the Mayday resistance to help bring down the evil empire. It’s a contrived and heavily stage-managed premise — but contrived in a Dickensian sort of way with coincidences that reverberate with philosophical significance. And Atwood’s sheer assurance as a storyteller makes for a fast, immersive narrative that’s as propulsive as it is melodramatic...If Agnes comes across as willfully naïve in the opening sections of “The Testaments,” Atwood appears to be making the point that Agnes begins as a very ordinary girl. Ordinary in the way that Offred was ordinary in “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a smart, resourceful young woman, more concerned, initially, with the travails of daily life than with politics or the larger world. Atwood’s Offred was not a rebel like her friend Moira and not an ideologue like her mother.
I had to make this my Book of the Month despite not having read a single word, as the manuscript is under lock and key in a heavily guarded vault somewhere, as this is, of course, the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale and, for my money, the single most exciting publishing event of the year. Hurrah!
All I can tell you that it is set 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred's future at the end of The Handmaid's Tale. The Testaments has three female narrators, who bring different perspectives on life in Gilead, but it is safe to suppose, according to Atwood's editor at Chatto, Becky Hardie, "that life in a totalitarian theocracy is still very dark indeed for women-not all women, it should be said, but the vast majority".
Hardie adds: "The Testaments has a different feel and scope, and a different drive and energy, from its predecessor. Atwood has truly expanded her world for us, and her legendary vision. She has created a novel for the world we live in today. It's a phenomenal achievement and I just cannot wait for you to be able to read it and start talking about it." Me neither: roll on 10th September.