So I read The Testaments. I’m having difficulties with putting together a coherent post about the book, though probably my pressure is not nearly as unsurmountable as that of Margaret Atwood’s as she went about writing a sequel to a worldwide cultural phenomenon the Handmaid’s Tale. Here’s trying.
Margaret Atwood, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I’ve just recently realised that the people I think are really cool are basically all about 80 years of age. I love a sharp-tongued, laconic older woman, I do. My first Atwood was The Edible Woman. Despite her oeuvre being massive and spanning over 60 years, I never properly binge-read her books. I even read the Handmaid’s Tale quite late. But there was something in the tone, in the protofeminism (as she herself calls the style of her earlier novels) that sort of stuck.
And then the Handmaid happened, way before #metoo and the marches, and I kind of categorised it as sci-fi, together with some of her other novels. Dystopia wasn’t really even part of my vocabulary. In 2016, before the major disaster struck, I read Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, and again thought “what a quaint piece of feminist sci-fi”.
Then it was suddenly all about women’s marches and people wearing pussy-hats to the streets, abortion-rights being questioned at highest political level and sexuality being discussed on all medium. I had to re-read Handmaid, and suddenly many things made sense, in a non-good way. I have not seen the tv-series, by the way.
So really, what literary work could possibly match the greatness of the Handmaid? A fact universally known is that sequels are almost never as brilliant as their predecessors. The Handmaid was published in 1985, and the whole point of its greatness is that it predicted the future in a way that is fucking eerily accurate. While, of course, being a brilliant novel.
Turning to The Testaments. Because I’m a nerd I had to pre-order the book (at the off-chance that the literary sensation of the year would suddenly go out of print) and read it almost immediately, almost in one go. The megalomanic hype around the book ensured that I already knew exactly what it would be about and who were the protagonists. A friend asked me whether The Testaments make sense if one hasn’t read the Handmaid. Yes and no.
As I said, a quick googling will give you enough background to fully get The Testaments even if, for some inexplicable reason you have not read and/or watched the Handmaid. The book is about the bringing down of Gilead, basically, and the hook is how it eventually ends up being done. Of course The Testaments is an excellent book, but the Handmaid it ain’t.
If the predictions in the Handmaid were eerie, so is Atwood’s timing. We need to revisit the Handmaid exactly now, which is why The Testaments come at an important moment (there are also references to environmental catastrophe in the novel – it’s the major climate strike day globally as I’m writing this) and again with the same main point: the burden will fall hardest on women and children.
I can recommend The Testaments as I can recommend anything by Atwood. But just to give you chills from the Handmaid, written 35 years ago, how’s this for an example:
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed at home at night, watching television.”
Fast forward to 2019 and the UK Prime Minister casually proposing the proroguing of the parliament.
If you can, and are so inclined, latest The Gentlewoman has an excellent interview with Atwood.