Book Review: The Testaments

Here's the thing, that will come as a surprise to nobody: I love Margaret Atwood. Love her. And, if she hadn't written The Blind Assassin, then The Handmaid's Tale would probably be my favourite of her works so, obviously, I have been giddy with excitement about The Testaments since I first heard about it last year. I have never hit the Amazon pre-order button so hard in my life (that turned out to be a total clusterfuck, actually, but let's not fall down that particular rabbit hole right now). I couldn't wait - I was finally going to get to find out what happened to Offred, in Margaret's own words. This book, coming 34 years after The Handmaid's Tale, had a lot to live up to - not just in my eyes but you know, in the eyes of the world. Way to put yourself under pressure, Margaret.

It's interesting actually - to me at least - because I've read Handmaid's so many times and honestly, haven't spent all that much time stressing over the ending. I didn't throw my book at the wall and scream about needing to know what happened next, I just sort of accepted this was how it was and carried on being fine about and then I found out about The Testaments and suddenly was all 'yes finally the answers I never knew I needed' which, is a recurring thing for me with Atwood: I was perfectly happy with Oryx and Crake as a standalone and then she wrote Year of the Flood and I realised how badly I'd wanted it.

So, my take away from finishing The Testaments this weekend?

This book was entirely and completely unnecessary. It wasn't needed.

Does that mean it wasn't brilliant?

No, no it doesn't. It was, in it's own entirely different to the The Handmaid's Tale kind of a way, pretty excellent.

There's a kind of magic to the way Atwood writes: this book for example is split into three narratives - a young girl living in Gilead, who has never known anything other, a young girl living in Canada who knows of Gilead only what she's been told, and (perhaps most fascinatingly for me) Aunt Lydia- and the way she moves seamlessly and perfectly from voice to voice is so so good. Also, show me another almost 80 year old who can write such an authentic teenage girl, please, for I do not believe one exists.

The Testaments is different to Handmaid's and I am glad. The tone is different, the message is different, the way the whole thing builds and unfolds is different; for this book to work though, it needed to be different. Handmaids 2.0 would not have worked.

The Testaments, set fifteen years after the end of The Handmaid's Tale is new and yet still the same. Gilead is familiar even on the brink of collapse; the world outside the way I imagined it would be but the book itself feels somehow less....bleak, which is a thing we can all be glad of frankly. I love Margaret Atwood but wow does she make me fear for humanity more than I already did.

The weight of this book isn't quite as crushing. You don't put it down with that same 'well, shit' feeling you get when reading Handmaid's. In The Handmaid's Tale Offred's story is hard, it threatens to suffocate, trapping you in this world that feels so possible; there's little action and that's kind of the power in it. More happens in The Testaments. A lot happens, actually, and whilst Gilead is still grim enough to make your chest tight, and your fingers curl into fists, there's also an undercurrent of hope - is there a glimmer of a chance here that it might all be ok Margaret? Is that what you're telling me? The Testaments sticks the finger to the patriarchy like only Margaret Atwood can and I won't lie, the whole theme throughout the book that maybe the kids will save us makes me want to shove a copy in the hands of every teenager ever and say 'quick, look, it's not too late.'

It's timely and relevant, socially aware and shrewd like Atwood's work always always is, drawing, without mentioning but actually really not all that subtly, on things like #MeToo, the plight of refugees, the current political climate particularly in the USA (although we're kind of feeling that here right now too), the very real treatment of women that is happening right now in none-Western countries, and, this is Atwood so it's tightly plotted and of course the characterisation blew my mind. Aunt Lydia. Oh my God. Her backstory, the way that we get to see how she became the Aunt Lydia we saw in Handmaid's and also who she is fifteen years later, it blew my mind. Shes manipulative and she's terrifying in her duplicity, in the way she gives zero fucks who she throws under the bus to get to where she needs to be, and how where she needs to be in not necessarily what we expect from the woman we came to know through Offred - the way we see another side to her and the questions that come with that. Her story fascinated the hell out of me.

We get our answers too - the whole book is those answers, the testaments of the title are those answers so I should probably say that this book will not work as a standalone. Whereas Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy will make sense in any order, this really has to be read as a sequel to make any sense at all.

It's not going to change the world, this book. It won't become a classic like The Handmaid's Tale and it's probably not Atwood's finest work, but who cares? Why does every book she writes have to be a literary masterpiece anyway? Why can she not just write a clever, fast-paced witty book, an easy read in a familiar world, if that's what she wants to write? The Testaments felt to me like she just wanted to spend a little bit more time playing in her own sandbox and I for one am mightily glad that she did.

Margaret, you're still my favourite.