The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Published by VINTAGE

IF there’s any book published this year that doesn’t need an introduction it’s this one, the long awaited follow up to Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 speculative fiction classic has finally arrived to a frenzied fanfare of midnight queues, readings and costume parties, the like not seen since the final Harry Potter book arrived 12 years ago.

It’s enough to make you fear over-hype, to be a little bit resistant to the overwrought build up, to go in prepared for the worst, but thankfully my fears were ultimately for nothing, as The Testaments is everything it has promised to be; thought provoking, vast in scope and scale and boasting narrators to sit in easy company with our heroine from The Handmaid’s Tale.

There has been a myriad of books hailed as “the new Handmaid’s Tale” in recent times, its popularity having soared in the past few years, but this time the moniker is accurate. The testaments of the title are three accounts of a crucial time taking place almost 16 years after the end of the first book, one of which comes from a source that will be familiar to readers of Offred’s harrowing tale, the other being two new, unique voices from across the divide.

Daisy has grown up in Canada with knowledge of Gilead’s bonkers regime only on her periphery, gleaned from news reports that have scant information available to them and the presence of the Pearl Girls, pairs of novice Aunts sent on recruiting missions to as far afield as they can manage.

Agnes is a born and bred Gileadean, and her story begins when as a child her darling mother dies and she acquires a stepmother of the distinctly wicked variety. As a girl of high rank in Gilead (her father is a Commander) her schooling consists of needle-point and wife training, reading skills being reserved for boys and for those girls who eventually find a calling as an Aunt.

The third account goes the furthest back, to the day the United States fell and the nation of Gilead was declared, and unveils a great deal of information about the motives, calculation and struggle for survival of those forced to conform to the new regime, and answers quite a few questions raised following the publication and subsequent fevered analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale.

In that way The Testaments serves almost as a prequel as well as a sequel, or rather a companion piece to the first book, which means you needn’t necessarily have read The Handmaid’s Tale to enjoy and get a lot out of The Testaments. The tone of each testament is distinct, Atwood proving once again that simplicity is deceptive — the writing is so utterly compelling that the skill in plotting, the mastery of the narratives could easily go unnoticed until you take a breath to consider what you’ve just read.

Two of the narrators are young women of similar age, but couldn’t be more different in their upbringing and view of the world. There’s no mistaking them; their characters are as keenly drawn as Offred’s was, as is the third voice, who as the most mature and with the most knowledge of before and after Gilead’s inception is perhaps the most interesting overall.

Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale won’t be disappointed; I ploughed through The Testaments in two sittings, staying up well past my bedtime to read just one more chapter. Supporting characters are given heft and importance, and the fate of some will no doubt leave tears tickling your eyelids.

The brutality of Gilead is cast in a sort of demented relief by Daisy’s view of it, as seen from the outside looking in, but it’s Agnes’s account that jars the most, in accepting its barbaric practices simply because that’s what she has grown up with and has been taught to believe as good and right. The use of three narratives is effective in that they both bolster and complement the tale of the Handmaid.

Is there some service to fans who have eagerly awaited a sequel for almost 35 years? I would hasten to say yes, but would also say that it’s not a bad thing. We’re all living in hope in these trying times, and The Testaments ultimately offers a welcome glimmer of it.

Review first published in The Tuam Herald on Wednesday 18th, 2019.

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