The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments was a surprise in some ways, and not at all surprising in others. As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, it is positioned as containing the narratives (‘testaments’) of three more characters, women tied up in some way with Gilead and a particular point in its history. Most of the plot is standard dystopian fare, and it goes over many of the things found in The Handmaid’s Tale but with more of a focus on Wives, Aunts, and other elements of the power structure that aren’t Handmaids. One of the narratives is by a character who has a lot more power and knowledge about the regime, which gives more context to Gilead and gives the book quite a different feel to its precursor, which slowly unveils elements of Gilead rather than assuming readers are already aware of most elements.

At this stage it is worth saying that I’m not a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. I read it (multiple times) for my AS Level English Literature coursework, found the writing annoying and too obvious, and then reread it last year and came to the same conclusions. I think Atwood has written better things, and better dystopian fiction (the MaddAddam books are at least occasionally more subtle than the puns and concepts in Gilead). I was therefore surprised to discover that I got quite engrossed in The Testaments, with the writing style less grating and the movement between three different narratives providing tension. Initially it took some time to get into the world of the books again, and it was hard to know at first if I was missing a lot from not remembering The Handmaid’s Tale well enough, but after a while I settled into it.

The story is predictable and clearly written to provide elements of hopefulness in light of how prescient The Handmaid’s Tale is sometimes thought as being in relation to the modern day. This doesn’t stop it from being a gripping read, perhaps partly because I wasn’t invested in how good it was as a sequel but just interested to see if I liked it more than its precursor. However, after finishing it, it does seem a bit too neatly tied up and lacking in the kind of dramatic moments that at least make The Handmaid’s Tale hard to forget. The Testaments is bonus material to The Handmaid’s Tale which fleshes out more wider context and how society works and has a narrative which makes a decent read but doesn’t really do anything interesting.