A note: as a member of UCU, the union for most lecturers, postdocs, teaching staff and admin staff at UK universities, I’m on strike from my academic job from 25th November to 4th December. This means the next week and a half will probably be very busy on this blog, as I entertain and distract myself with fiction and novel-writing!
After my surprisingly positive experience re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this month, and after having the chance to see Atwood speak about the novel at the Sage Gateshead in October, I had to try The Testaments. Bonus: it fits both #MARM and #SciFiMonth! I had heard that this is as much a sequel to the TV series as to the original novel, but I haven’t seen the series, so I read it as a traditional sequel – and I believe that it needs to be able to stand alone in this way. While most of you will probably know more than you need to know about this novel already, I’ll give a brief summary. The Testaments is much more expansive in scope than The Handmaid’s Tale. First of all, it consists of three ‘found’ narratives rather than just one, although these are still contained within the original framing narrative of an academic conference being held about the history of the fallen republic of Gilead some centuries on. Second, and perhaps more importantly, our narrators have access to a lot more information than Offred. Daisy, a sixteen-year-old girl, has grown up in Canada and thinks of Gilead as an oppressive regime far away. Agnes grew up in Gilead, but in a more privileged position than Offred, as the adopted daughter of a Commander. Finally, Aunt Lydia, whom we all remember from the original Handmaid’s Tale, knows more about what’s going on in Gilead than anybody else.
So, one problem that The Testaments was always going to face was the incredible growth of feminist dystopian literature – much of which is aimed at teenage girls given the boom in the YA market – since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Of course, the original novel played an important part in inspiring this trend, but it leaves Atwood with less room to manoeuvre in this sequel. This Goodreads review skewers the novel in these terms, pointing out that it rehearses familiar tropes from countless YA novels, highlighting Lauren Oliver’s Delirium series in particular (Oliver’s a lot better when she’s not writing dystopia; I loved Before I Fall and Panic). I think this review is somewhat unfair when it comes to the quality of Atwood’s writing. The Testaments is not nearly as well-written as The Handmaid’s Tale, and much more frequently falls into the kind of annoying word-play and repetition that dogs Atwood’s prose for me, especially in Aunt Lydia’s sections (‘Whatever my resolve might be: after some days I lost track of that plotline. The plotline of my resolve,’ muses Aunt Lydia, and, in the opening of her narrative, ‘Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one when still alive. Already I am petrified.’). However, it’s head-and-shoulders over most dystopian writing, YA or not, and occasionally, really delivers (a young Aunt-in-training, Becka, says when she hears of the suicide of another trainee, “No-one wants to die… But some people don’t want to live in any of the ways that are allowed.”)
Having said this, though, two out of three of the narrators fall into familiar tropes that Atwood should have avoided. Daisy is the most frustrating. Atwood seems to be playing up the contrast between her ‘normal’ teenage upbringing and the repression of women’s lives in Gilead for comic value, and it makes her incredibly irritating. It also means she doesn’t have much of a character beyond being a teenage stereotype, which is especially obvious in her dialogue (“You think that festering shitheap [Gilead] can be renewed? Burn it all down!“) Agnes is easier to get along with, but, again, occupies a incredibly traditional niche in this kind of fiction, even down to her musings on faith (‘Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightfulness and indeed the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology… But… I feared I might lose my faith.’ The trouble is that Atwood just says this; like so many dystopian writers who have no time for religion in their fiction, she doesn’t make us feel Agnes’s internal conflict at all.) Aunt Lydia is the only narrator that brings something new to the table, but her extensive knowledge of Gilead breaks down some of the important things that made the first novel so interesting. Basically, she tells us that Gilead is totally rotten, nobody believes in any of it, especially not her, and she only went along with the regime to avoid being killed or tortured (although Atwood doesn’t whitewash her character, thankfully). Offred’s testimony, as I wrote in my earlier review, works so well because she knows so little. Giving the reader more simply undermines what Atwood has already built.
And although everybody has already said it, I have to say it again: this was not a worthy Booker winner, and the Booker is not a prize for lifetime achievement. Bernardine Evaristo has been mightily shortchanged.