Book Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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The Testaments is the follow on novel to The Handmaids Tale and was released last year (2019). It is set 15 years after the events of the previous book and follows the stories of three very different women. Their paths are destined to converge, but to what end? This novel reveals much more about the inner workings of Gilead and its origins.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I realise I may very well be in the minority with this rating, and I wanted so desperately to love this book, but I didn’t. To be perfectly blunt, I feel it is a book that did not need to be written. The Handmaids Tale was fantastic. It was chilling, gripping and eyeopening. Everything down to the way the book was written makes The Handmaids Tale live up to its reputation of a modern classic. I love that book, and think it is a relevant and important read today.

It was not so with The Testaments. I found this book tough going to be honest, which is why it has taken me a while to read it to completion. I struggled with the constant changes of perspective between the women, and it would take me a while to remember what was going on and with whom. I also found the timeline of events confusing, as not all of the stories were told during the same time frame. The timeline does become clearer towards the end of the book however, which allowed me to understand more of what I had previously read.

“Still, I wanted to believe; indeed I longed to; and, in the end, how much of belief comes from longing?”

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments (Chapter 50)

Having said all of the above, the book definitely had its merits. As with its predecessor, it tackles the heavy issues of totalitarianism and religious mania. I think it highlights how easy it is to indoctrinate the masses into your belief system if you have the right tools at your disposal. This is particularly relevant today as we are, rightly, choosing to TEMPORARILY sacrifice some of our hard won freedoms in the name of the greater good. I wholeheartedly support this by the way. STAY HOME and SAVE LIVES, but it serves to show that fear makes people easy to control, a point well made in this book. We are trusting the powerful not to abuse their position and so far, the majority prove worthy of the trust, but this is not so in Gilead. The book certainly highlights the danger of a society formed this way.

The book also highlights the importance of being able to read and write in understanding the world around you. Having this form of communication is paramount to acquiring knowledge. By not allowing the majority of the population the ability to read and write, you severely limit their freedom, without having to use up many resources. It limits communication, the sharing of ideas and indeed the ability to fact check the rhetoric of those in power. As an avid reader myself, I would argue that to remove a persons ability to read and write, is to remove their ability to think for themselves.

“Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories.”

Margaret Atwood – The Testaments (Chapter 51)

Spoilers Below

There are a couple of things I would like to talk about in more detail, including the ending of the book, so this section will contain spoilers. I have also referenced the ending of The Handmaids Tale.

Having read The Handmaids Tale previously, it was fairly easy for me to guess who each of the three women narrating were. I do not think this would be the case, however, if you had not read the previous book. My favourite of the three by far was Aunt Lydia. She was certainly the most complex character. I found the other two to be lacking in substance and I struggled to differentiate between them at points.

The book improved towards the end, but I felt it was a little rushed. It was such a slog to get to the exciting parts, only to have them over in a few pages. We spent the whole book hearing about how dangerous Gilead was and how no one really meant what they said and the Eyes were all knowing and always watching. It seemed remarkable to me then, that the two girls just breezed though the length of the country all the way to the Canadian border with zero problems.

I also had a bit of a problem with how Daisy (or Nicole) reacted to the death of her parents. She was adopted, yes, but she didn’t know that at the time. I mean, they got blown up by agents from another country on her birthday, then she was told she was adopted and her birthday wasn’t her birthday, then she was told she was Baby Nicole, the mascot of Gilead, then they asked her to infiltrate Gilead all in the same breath. She just accepted it and never seemed to grieve at all. Maybe shes a stronger person than me, but that would mess me up, she seemed to hardly react at all. I just didn’t find her character believable I’m afraid.

I understand why this book was written. People asked for closure after The Handmaids Tale, and they got it. I just think it was not necessary. Part of the beauty of that book is the ambiguity of the ending. It is satisfying to know that most of them lived happily ever after, but I really think it detracts from the impact of the previous book. The reason it made such an impression on me was because I didn’t know what happened. Much like in Gilead, its easy to be told what to think, its harder to come to your own conclusions.

You can pick up a copy of The Testaments here if you are interested in reading it.

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