Sunday 22 September 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood @MargaretAtwood @vintagebooks #TheTestaments

More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.

Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.

As Atwood unfolds The Testaments, she opens up the innermost workings of Gilead as each woman is forced to come to terms with who she is, and how far she will go for what she believes.

‘Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.' Margaret Atwood

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood was published on 10 September 2019 by Chatto & Windus / Vintage Books.

I bought my copy on publication day and then went to the cinema to watch the live stream of the interview with the author from The National Theatre, London. I finished reading the book the following day.

Like many many people, I was incredibly excited when it was announced that Atwood would be publishing The Testaments; a sequel to her iconic cult classic The Handmaids' Tale; originally published in 1985.  I was just 22 years old when I read The Handmaid's Tale, and it was so far out of my comfort zone at the time. My usual reading matter was bonkbusters written by Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and the like, along with a lot of crime fiction. I was working with a lady who recommended Atwood to me, and I read a lot of her books. I can't say that I understood all of them, but they stayed with me over the years.
Since the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale, I've revisited the book many times. Dipping back in to remind me of things, but haven't yet read it again the whole way through.

I've avoided reviews of The Testaments, but have seen a lot of chat online from those who don't think it should have been written. They say it's 'not needed', or are confused by its contents.

Atwood was clear from the outset that this was not the continuation of June's story. She wasn't going to begin The Testaments where The Handmaid's Tale finished. No, this is set fifteen years after the end of the first story and it is the author's way of answering the many questions that have been asked about it.

Nobody HAS to read it. It's purely a personal choice, however, it really is the right of the author to continue her story as she wishes, and expressing outrage because she decided to do that, at last, is in my view, just a bit silly.

So, back to The Testaments.

As one would expect from this magnificent author, it is extremely well written. I felt that the style was easier than The Handmaid's Tale, but that could be because I am thirty years older now and my reading has matured, and so has my outlook on the world.

There are three narrators, beginning with Aunt Lydia; the aunt who terrified us all in The Handmaid's Tale; her narrative is in the form of a memoir. She's writing it and hiding it as of course, reading and writing are forbidden, and anyone who dares to expose any of Gilead's secrets will be severely dealt with.
The other two narrators are as yet, unknown to the reader. A young girl who has lived in Gilead for most of her life, and has no recollection of the days before the regime started, and a slightly younger girl who lives across the border in free Canada. She has spent her life knowing about Gilead yet has never been there.

Atwood allows the reader to learn so much more about Gilead. Previously we had only heard about it through June's eyes, and she could only tell us what she saw. She knew nothing of the inner workings of the creators of this oppressive and cruel regime, she couldn't know for she was just a woman, and one of the lowest in the pecking order.

Aunt Lydia can, and does tell us. We learn just how she become an Aunt, and although it's still difficult to see eye-to-eye with her choices, we can surely now empathise about that choice. Atwood's stark and non-flowery language hits the solar plexus with a bang that resonates throughout the body and leaves an imprint seared onto the brain. Don't be fooled though, for although this is a fiction book, it's all too real and there are multiple times when the events played out upon these pages can be lifted and applied to events that have happened, and are still happening in our world. 

The last thing anyone would expect to find when reading about Gilead is humour, but Atwood incorporates some fine touches within her narrative, especially when discussing the Aunts; how they choose their 'Aunt name', and their dealings with each other. She captures the essence of a female orientated community so very well, revealing that despite the outside restrictions, little changes within the female relationship; jealousy, bitching, betrayal, and also real friendships are all played out so very well.

The differences between the narratives of Daisy; brought up in Gilead and Jade; living in Canada are multiple and complex, yet they have their similarities, and those are understood as the story comes to a close with startling reveals. I have to admit that I had worked a couple of these out before the end, but that only increased my enjoyment, racing towards the end to find out if I was right, and incredibly pleased by how it all played out.

The Testaments is not as dark as The Handmaid's Tale; whilst we learn more about Gilead, and much of it is anger inducing and heavy and despairing; there's a touch of hope within this story. We are told that Gilead is 'rotting', we see that many of its founder members are no longer as committed to the cause. We witness the work of Mayday - the underground resistance movement that have tirelessly worked to bring Gilead to its knees. Questions are answered, loose ends are tied up ... but not all.

This is not The Handmaid's Tale, this is not just a sequel, it's also a prequel. This is writing from an author who is at the very top of the game, and surely the greatest author of our time.  I applaud Atwood, I adore The Testaments. Shake off any gnawing feelings of unease you may have about this, read it for what it is; the author's answers to questions raised over thirty years. Enjoy!

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Her novels include Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and the MaddAddam trilogy. Her 1985 classic, The Handmaid's Tale, went back into the bestseller charts with the election of Donald Trump, when the Handmaids became a symbol of resistance against the disempowerment of women, and with the 2017 release of the award-winning Channel 4 TV series.

Atwood has won numerous awards including the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society, the Franz Kafka Prize, the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019 she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

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