#MARM and #SciFiMonth: The Testaments

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!

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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.

30 thoughts on “#MARM and #SciFiMonth: The Testaments

  1. This is basically what I expect my reaction would be as well. Some of my book club members seem really interested in reading it, so if it ends up being one of next year’s selections I will read it, but with my expectations extremely low — since I don’t like sequels in the first place and don’t remember being hugely impressed with Handmaid’s.

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    • Yes, nothing in the book really came as a surprise to me. I’m so glad I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale first though as I think this would have really affected that experience.

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  2. It’s so much more interesting to read everyone’s Testament reviews having finally read the book myself. Now I can nod along, or have things be brought to my attention that I didn’t notice.

    I agree – Aunt Lydia’s testimony is the most revealing/interesting. I also enjoyed Agnes’s because of the insights she had into the young people of Gilead. Daisy felt a bit more like a stereotype. Before reading the book, I imagined her to be more of a studious type with a special interest in Gilead society.

    I really enjoyed the book overall, and am glad to have read it. Otherwise, I might have died of curiosity. 🙂

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    • Agnes’s testimony felt to me to be closest in structure to the original novel – a woman living in Gilead with limited knowledge, but this time occupying a wife/aunt position rather than that of a handmaid, which makes her knowledge greater than Offred’s.

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  3. Really interesting review! I’ve vowed to just pretend this book doesn’t exist but lately I’ve been warming up to the idea of reading it only if it appears on the WP longlist… we shall see. But your criticisms echo a lot of what irritated me about it on principle.

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  4. I found the book answered all the questions I wanted it to answer, and I enjoyed reading about how a normal woman like you or I could have become Aunt Lydia (I was busy imagining whether I could have got so far – I suspect not). I agree it wasn’t as well-written and I read it almost as a nostagia trip for my first read of Handmaid’s Tale but I did appreciate the different viewpoints and gradually revealed storyline. Having read both, I agree that Evaristo should have won the Booker on her own.

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    • I wonder how different my experience has been with the Testaments because I read The Handmaid’s Tale for the ‘first’ time so soon before (yes it was a re-read, but I never got into the novel as a teenager). I guess, perhaps because I haven’t been thinking over the novel for so many years, I didn’t really feel there were any burning questions I wanted answered about it. Obviously you wonder what’s happened to Offred but I’m very used to this kind of dystopian ending. Then, I felt that the answers we were given in the Testaments didn’t really reveal anything we couldn’t have guessed ourselves, except Offred’s fate – but maybe some of the coverage of the Testaments leached into my brain before I read it!

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      • I think that’s a fair point – although I had it a bit mixed up with another book, I did always wonder what had happened and wondered even more after re-reading THT just before. I also don’t read much dystopian fiction and I managed not to hear too much about the book in advance (even with transcribing an interview with M.A. on the day it came out!) so I came to it pretty fresh.

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  5. Great review! I felt very similarly about this one. Aunt Lydia was the only character in this book that felt unique and interesting to me; I agree with your point about how feminist dystopia has changed since Handmaid’s Tale, which perhaps left Atwood at a disadvantage when deciding to attempt a couple of teen perspectives in this one. I can see that there’s going to be an audience for this book and I don’t begrudge anyone liking it, but I completely agree that it isn’t a good fit for a Booker win, and Evaristo was definitely shortchanged.

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  6. I think this was a really well-done review! I like that you were able to straddle the line between acknowledging its merits while also criticizing its inclusion in the Booker prize. I plan to read this just to read it and expect my reaction will probably be middling.

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  8. Wasn’t Atwood attempting to capitalize on the rise of Trump and Brexit? I thought I read that somewhere, that everyone pushed her to do this novel at just this time. Perhaps she was rushed. I do know that her writing is terribly hit and miss for me. MaddAddam trilogy? Love it. Cat’s Eye? Aimless and boring. Atlas Grace? Gorgeous. Etc.

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  10. I believe that the reason that it’s harder for us, as readers, to connect with Agnes and Daisy, is because they are having their own difficulties connecting to themselves. One girl because she is only now beginning to understand who she really is – her entire identity has been shaken – and the other girl because she has been discouraged from doing any kind of reflection or rumination (if she’d been super expressive and sharing profound thoughts, it would not have rang true for me, given that women in Gilead are not even allowed to be near books, certainly not allowed to read/study/converse). I’m being a little vague here to avoid spoilers, but even if these might not be characterizations that I like (sometimes I don’t like teenage girls either! not myself either, when I was one!) I find them believable. In the context of the story.

    Do you have the impression that a lot of teenage girls and young women are reading both YA dystopia and also Margaret Atwood? That’s not my sense of things but maybe that’s a reflection of our different reading circles and communities. And I know that a lot of readers are just reading her for story, and likely some have discovered her via the Hulu series. Do you feel the show is popular overseas and drawing readers to the book?

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    • I didn’t find either Agnes or Daisy to be especially well-written or deeply characterised, but I think we may have to agree to disagree here. They retrod too many familiar beats for me to feel that Atwood was doing anything interesting with them (in contrast, I don’t think Offred is presented as somebody who was exceptionally intelligent or thoughtful before her life as a handmaid, but Atwood does a great job with her).

      I’d be surprised if many teenage girls who picked up The Handmaid’s Tale and/or The Testaments weren’t also dabbling in YA dystopia (and I get the sense that a lot of older teenage girls are reading these books, not least because the former remains a school set text!), but the bigger connection between the two is probably the adults who read YA. As most YA titles are read by adults rather than teenagers, I suspect it’s this audience who is most likely to read both YA dystopia and Atwood’s dystopias.

      I know a lot of British people who’ve seen the TV series, but I’m not sure whether or not it’s actually encouraged them to read the books – I hope it does.

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      • Interesting! In Canada, about 70% of the YA market is consumed by young-adult and adult readers, not teens. But I don’t have the sense that those are Atwood readers (though THT is an assigned text in some schools here). In my experience, readers who enjoy YA aren’t looking for what Atwood is offering.

        But, having said that, there has been a massive upsurge of interest in the book since the 2016 election in the United States which has affected sales in Canada too (our economies and cultures being closely linked). And I’ve often seen people on the subway reading it, of a variety of ages. Although everyone I know who watches the show has already read the novel (maybe not recently).

        So you don’t believe that Offred is either exceptionally intelligent or thoughtful? Then perhaps we’ll agree to disagree on her characterization as well. 🙂 I would say that she’s not in a position where she can demonstrate her skills or accomplishments, but even under the pressure of this system, she rallies to the point where she can resist. Which, in my book, requires both intelligence and thoughtfulness. Your take differs?

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        • I don’t have access to the kind of stats I’d need to know who’s reading The Testaments! It would be interesting to know. I guess my sense in the UK (and US) is that adult YA readers don’t *just* read YA, and they seem to me to be an obvious market for The Testaments, especially as they are likely to have read The Handmaid’s Tale as teenagers. But obviously, no way of proving this hunch!

          I don’t think Offred is unintelligent by any means, but I don’t get the impression that she was in any way exceptional for somebody of her class and educational background before her experience as a handmaid. I would agree that becoming a handmaid seems to bring unexpected resilience out of her, but I guess that was something I particularly liked about the first book – that Offred isn’t presented as a special exception, because I find this a tiresome dystopian trope. I liked the fact that I didn’t particularly warm to her! However, I recognise that you have been considering this novel for many more years than I have…

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