AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Blessed be the fruit!

It’s probably safe to say that the appearance of The Testaments has been the publishing event of 2019 in the UK, the USA and Canada. Here in London the launch in September garnered huge publicity, with branches of Waterstones bookshop remaining open so that Atwood super-fans could grab themselves a copy at midnight on 10 September.

Perhaps the excitement was sparked by the success of the television adaptation, starring Elizabeth Moss. I had watched the first season (based on The Handmaid’s Tale), but not the second (which diverges from that story), so I didn’t have a problem in adjusting expectations slanted one way or another by the TV series in another direction when reading The Testaments, which is not based on events in the televised drama (reminiscent of the situation that surrounded the most recent Bridget Jones book and movie).

A good friend was heavily involved in the production process for The Testaments, so I was pleased to learn of Margaret Atwood’s UK Booker Prize win in October (a win that was shared equally with Bernardine Evaristo, for her Girl, Woman, Other). Nevertheless, the decision to split the prize has attracted controversy, especially given Atwood’s acknowledgement that she doesn’t much need the publicity, with the book selling 250,000 copies across all formats within a couple of weeks.

I hadn’t read the Booker shortlist in full. The only other two books I’d managed to get to were Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World, neither of which matches, for me, the pull of The Testaments.

The Testaments‘ main plus is that it is wildly readable, much more so, strangely, than its predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale (published in 1985), which drags in places. And it is terrifying in both the extent of the world imagined by Atwood, and in the hideous plausibility of that world. Known as Gilead, it is an extreme form of puritan theocracy, stretching across swathes of the former USA.

I really enjoyed the book, which even accompanied me to the hospital accident and emergency department when my 12-year-old daughter injured her leg (she coincidentally was also deep into her own dystopian read – the omnipresent Hunger Games).

Set some 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is an engrossing piece of storytelling, with some interesting juxtapositions: there are moments of culture shock, as a character enters Gilead from modern-day Canada, and is non-plussed at the bizarre and strangely medieval practices that are the norm in the patriarchal state, where women are uncompromisingly repressed and oppressed.

We get a wider perspective than was the case with The Handmaid’s Tale, with testimony from the terrifying Aunt Lydia on the foundation and operation of Gilead, even if her mode of delivery, a secret written testimony, is sometimes implausible and a bit clunky:

“This morning I got up an hour early to steal a few moments before breakfast with you, my reader. You’ve become somewhat of an obsession – my sole confidant, my only friend – for to whom can I tell the truth besides you? Who else can I trust?”

The book is also something of a coming of age novel (I think it’s time for me to step away from the coming of age novels, as I seem to have read a glut of them recently). It focuses on events in the lives of a small number of teenage girls, who represent the first generation to have been brought up in Gilead, where women are limited to a small number of roles: high-status Wives, low-status Econowives, fertile Handmaidens to produce children for the often infertile Wives, Pearl Girl missionaries and autocratic, celibate Aunts.

In the final third of the book all the threads begin to come together, and a bit of humour creeps into the narrative, as well as real jeopardy. Plot-driven, it reads at times like a mash-up between Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage and a US buddy movie.

I liked Atwood’s quietly profound, snappy phrases (“Nobody is any authority on the fucks other people give”) and clever little details, like the discovery that Aunts are named for reassuringly familiar (to the older generation, at least), female-orientated, defunct commercial products: Aunt Maybelline, Aunt Estée, Aunt Dove.

I’ll forgive The Testaments for a few startling coincidences, which serve to keep the action moving. I particularly liked the nods to modern political phenomena, such as references to those in authority resorting to accusations of ‘fake news’ to defend themselves. Hmm, sounds strangely familiar.

The book’s acknowledgements section comes with the reminder that nothing takes place in the novel that is unheard of in human history, shaking up our “it could never happen here” complacency. Let’s face it, modern life sometimes doesn’t feel that far from dystopia…

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5 Comments

  1. I have the same edition of “Handmaid’s Tale” as you! I re-read it in preparation for reading “The Testaments” (I also bought and read “Girl, Woman, Other” and loved it just as much) and got what I was looking for from the sequel. I think you’re right in that it was an easier read, maybe because of the multiple narrators and, really, more action. I didn’t get to attend any of the interviews but I transcribed the New Statesman’s press call the morning after the anouncement, so got her reading the first page of the book down my headphones – that was a real treat!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting re the press call! I will read the Evaristo too, I sort of feel that she might have been the worthier winner, amid all the controversy. But I very much enjoyed The Testaments and its a beautifully designed and produced book too. Funny that we have the same ancient edn of Handmaid’s!

      Liked by 1 person

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