The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I read The Testaments at the beginning of March, when life still felt relatively normal, and I’m glad I did because now that I feel as though I’m living inside the pages of a dystopian novel I’m not sure I would have been in the mood for reading one! I hope everyone is staying safe and coping with this strange and unfamiliar world we’ve found ourselves in. It’s been another stressful week for me – on Monday I started working from home and was just settling into a new routine when I was informed yesterday that I was being placed on furlough, so now I won’t be able to work at all until further notice and will only receive 80% of my salary during that time. Not great, but I’m hoping this at least means the company will be able to stay afloat and I will still have a job to go back to once all of this is over. On the plus side, I’m going to have plenty of time for reading and blogging now – if I could only get out of the slump I’ve been in for the last few weeks!

Anyway, back to The Testaments. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel from 1985, but for some reason I didn’t feel any immediate compulsion to read the sequel when it was published last year, not even after it was named joint winner of the Booker Prize. I knew I would get around to reading it eventually, though, and as I’ve mentioned, I finally picked it up earlier this month.

The first thing I will say is that I do think you should read The Handmaid’s Tale before starting The Testaments as otherwise you will be making it difficult for yourself to fully understand what is happening. Even leaving a gap of several years, as I did, made it difficult to get straight back into the story – I should really have found time for a re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale first.

Both books are set in the fictional state of Gilead (formerly the USA), where a patriarchal regime has risen to power and restricted women to a small number of clearly defined roles: Wives – women from higher ranking families who are married off to men known as ‘Commanders’; Handmaids – fertile women tasked with bearing children for Commanders whose Wives are unable to conceive; Marthas – domestic servants; and Aunts – women who have sacrificed the chance of marriage and childbirth and devoted themselves to the running of Gilead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we saw Gilead through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaid, but The Testaments gives us a different perspective…three different perspectives, in fact.

The first narrator is Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, who has helped to create the rules women must follow in this grim, oppressive society. Lydia’s story unfolds in the form of a secret manuscript describing her work as an Aunt and offering insights into the inner workings of Gilead and the corruption at its heart. The other two testaments are told in the voices of two young women who have led very different lives. One, Agnes, is the adopted child of a Gilead family and has been raised to become the Wife of a Commander. The other, Daisy, has grown up across the border in Canada with all the freedoms and opportunities that have been denied to Agnes.

These three testaments, taken as a whole, give us a much wider view of Gilead than we received from Offred’s rather limited perspective in The Handmaid’s Tale. I found Lydia’s the most interesting, as she has the best understanding of how things work in Gilead, but Agnes’ first-hand account of what it is like to grow up there is valuable too, as is Daisy’s account of how Gilead is viewed by the outside world. What struck me about the latter two narratives is that some (though not all) of the things Daisy sees as wrong and terrible about Gilead are things that Agnes considers right and reasonable. It made me wonder what sort of things any of us could come to accept as normal after years of being conditioned to think a certain way.

I didn’t find this book quite as powerful as The Handmaid’s Tale – and there were some plot developments towards the end that I found a little bit unconvincing. Like its predecessor, though, this is the sort of book that leaves you with a lot to think about.

29 thoughts on “The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

  1. setinthepast says:

    I’m working from home, but work’s pretty much dried up and I can’t see clients spending their time answering my e-mails with all this going on. Sympathies! At least the furlough system means that people aren’t being laid off completely. Good luck with the reading and blogging.

  2. whatmeread says:

    I agree that The Handmaid’s Tale was better. I’m sorry about your work, but it’s great that you are receiving most of your pay. Lots of people here are unemployed without any pay at all.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I have to keep reminding myself that things could be worse and at least I’m being paid and still have a chance of keeping my job. I’m trying to stay positive, although it’s difficult sometimes.

  3. Café Society says:

    I didn’t really want to read this when it first came out and wondering about what sort of world we will be going back to when/if this is over, I don’t think I particularly feel up to it at present. Atwood is an author I can take or leave to be honest. I’m sorry about your work, but I’m glad you can see some hope in the situation.

    • Helen says:

      This isn’t a great time to be reading dystopian novels, but when I read this book four or five weeks ago it seemed unimaginable somehow that things would get this bad such a short time later. I have read four of Atwood’s novels now, I think, and found something to enjoy in all of them but I wouldn’t really describe her as a favourite author.

  4. volatilemuse says:

    I agree with the above comment that dystopian is off the menu at the moment but am interested to hear your views on these books. I wonder what you think about the ‘shared’ booker prize. I’m a great fan of Bernadine Evaristo but Atwood is such an icon.

    Keep safe and well.

    • Helen says:

      I know the sharing of the Booker Prize was controversial, but I haven’t read the Bernardine Evaristo book yet so I can’t really say whether I agree with the decision.

      And thanks – you stay safe too. 🙂

  5. Lark says:

    I’m sorry you’ve been furloughed. Fingers crossed this craziness doesn’t last too much longer. And I hope you find some books to read that’ll take your mind off what’s happening in our world. *hugs*

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Lark. Hopefully it will all be over sooner rather than later and we can get back to just worrying about which book to read next! Sending hugs to you too. 🙂

  6. Rhiannon Lewis says:

    Very sorry to hear your news about work. Hopefully things will improve. Let’s hope. Interesting to read your review of ‘The Testaments’. I must be one of the few people in the world who didn’t like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. I would still read ‘The Testaments’ out of interest, but perhaps not just yet. Something cheerful instead!

    • Jo says:

      I always struggle with dystopian type novels in ‘ordinary’ times let alone now.
      Sorry to hear about your work, but it sounds promising if they are putting you in furlough at least. Perhaps revisit some favourite reads or easier topics for a while, my reading has taken a bit of a dent.

      • Helen says:

        Thanks, Jo. Yes, I’m glad there is at least a chance that I’ll still have a job at the end of all this! Revisiting some old favourites sounds like a good idea.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Rhiannon. I’m trying to stay positive and hope that things will start returning to normal sooner rather than later. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, as they’re not really my usual sort of books!

  7. FictionFan says:

    I’m sorry you’re on furlough but I hope it does mean your job will still be there for you when this is all over. As a retired person, I’m aware of how much more worrying this all is for people who are still part of the world of work. Stay well, and hopefully the economy will bounce back when we’re all finally allowed out to go on a mad spending spree!

  8. Jo Shafer says:

    I’m with you on this one, Helen. In fact, THE HANDMAID’S TALE held my interest more full than TESTAMENT, and usually I enjoy escaping into dystopian stories — but not now, thank you. What we’re going through is dystopian enough. The medical prognostics are correct that this will get worse before it gets better. Tonight’s national news update, especially in New York, is devastatingly unreal. Still, I keep reminding myself that this, too, shall come to pass. Eventually.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, it’s important to remember that this will be over eventually, even if that time seems a long way off at the moment. I enjoyed The Testaments but I’m glad I read it a month ago as I definitely wouldn’t be in the mood for it now!

  9. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    Sorry to hear about your work situation, but hopefully your company will be able to remain afloat, so you can return when things get back to something vaguely approaching normality. At least you were able to read the Testaments before things took a turn for the worse here, but I don’t think I will be reading it for a very long while. I don’t get on well with Dystopian Fiction at the best of times, and it requires a degree of consentration and peace of mind which I am somewhat lacking at the moment. I hope you continue to keep safe and well.

    • Helen says:

      I’m finding it hard to concentrate on reading at the moment too. I’m not really a big fan of dystopian fiction either, although I did enjoy both The Testaments and The Handmaid’s Tale – I wouldn’t have been in the right mood for them now, though. And thank you. I’m glad there’s at least a chance that I won’t lose my job and the company will survive.

  10. Liz Dexter says:

    I’m with you on needing to re-read Handmaid’s Tale first, I really benefitted from doing that. I did enjoy this one and, as you say, the multiple perspectives make the world-creation fuller and more clear. I also liked the feeling of hope it engendered. But I’m also glad I read it upon publication and not now! Hope being on furlough works out OK, I am working full time completely as normal (apart from having an extra person in the house) and truth be told, it’s pretty stressful, and I’m trying not to be stressed!

    • Helen says:

      I do wish I’d found time to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale first. It would have made it much easier for me to pick up the threads of the story again. And thank you! This is a very stressful time for all of us, I think, especially not knowing when this will be over and what the future might hold.

  11. Judy Krueger says:

    I had reread The Handmaid’s Tale not too long before reading The Testaments. I would not have understood or enjoyed the second book as much if I hadn’t. One thing that struck me is the difference in style. The Testaments was much more sprightly and even sometimes light-hearted. It read like a thriller. I found that appropriate for 2020. Right now, though, as you say, perhaps not a good reading choice. Good luck with everything in the current situation.

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Judy. I did notice a difference between The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. This one felt more optimistic and hopeful.

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