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The Testaments

Review

The Testaments

It’s hard to overstate just how much hype has preceded the publication of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, THE TESTAMENTS. Fueled by current political debates, not to mention the popularity of the Hulu television series inspired by it, THE HANDMAID’S TALE has become something of a cultural touchstone, nearly 35 years after its original release.

I first read THE HANDMAID’S TALE in the mid-’90s and picked it up again a couple of years ago, marveling at how well it has stood up and, as always, at Atwood’s storytelling genius. So I, like many readers, approached this companion novel with both huge excitement and more than a little hesitation. Would it live up to the hype?

The answer, I’m pleased to say, is an emphatic yes. Here Atwood employs contemporary storytelling techniques --- specifically by dividing up her narrative among the points of view of three converging characters --- while remaining fully immersed in the indelible world she created decades ago.

"THE TESTAMENTS is a fascinating triple character study, a driving adventure story, and an urgent plea for readers to take action rather than sit back and watch."

THE TESTAMENTS is set approximately 15 years after THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and notably the protagonist of that novel is not one of the central figures in this one. In fact, she never actually appears on the page. Instead, Atwood focuses on three very different female characters. There is Agnes, a girl growing up in Gilead as the daughter of a powerful Commander and his Wife. When Agnes’ mother dies suddenly, she learns some surprising and unsettling things about her parentage, revelations that begin to make her doubt if she wants to follow the conventional path and become a Wife herself.

There is also Daisy, a young teenager who has grown up in Canada and consequently has observed Gilead’s repressive policies only from a distance. That is, until tragedy strikes, and she learns a surprising fact about her own background and identity --- which grants her a power that may help bring down Gilead once and for all.

Finally, and maybe most surprising to those who have read THE HANDMAID’S TALE, there’s Aunt Lydia, the most respected (and perhaps most notorious) of the Aunts who govern the Handmaids and the missionary Pearl Girls, and who are among the only women in Gilead still permitted to read and write. Lydia writes her own testimony, one that will certainly surprise readers and could cause them to view this complicated character from a different perspective.

Atwood often writes novels about big ideas or themes --- climate change, reality TV, repressive governments --- so at times it can seem easy to forget that she is a first-rate storyteller. In THE TESTAMENTS, she constructs a novel that is full of ideas, reflections and philosophical revelations, but also is a propulsive, suspenseful read that will keep readers guessing about the fates of these characters, not to mention Gilead itself.

As much as it’s a page-turner, though, THE TESTAMENTS is still full of scenes and passages that will prompt readers to pause and reflect: “What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot? Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. Or better for your chances of staying alive. They knew that so well, the architects of Gilead. Their kind has always known that.”

In her afterword, Atwood reminds readers that all of the authoritarian tactics she describes here and in THE HANDMAID'S TALE have historical precedents. These horrific attempts to repress and control have happened before, often not that long ago --- and they could, and probably will, happen again. THE TESTAMENTS is a fascinating triple character study, a driving adventure story, and an urgent plea for readers to take action rather than sit back and watch.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 13, 2019

The Testaments
by Margaret Atwood

  • Publication Date: September 10, 2019
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • ISBN-10: 0385543786
  • ISBN-13: 9780385543781