SCAN Book Club: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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The long-awaited return of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has finally hit the bookshelves after a 30-year wait. To celebrate its release, a group of writers got together to review it.

To sum it up in a word: wow. To sum it up in several words: it’s everything I could have hoped for in a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Plotlines come together seamlessly, with the three stories of different women from vastly different backgrounds providing wildly different accounts of life in Gilead, either watching it unfold, from the outside looking in, or born right into the middle of it. Lydia, Daisy, and Agnes bring a different perspective to Gilead than Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, from Agnes who believed in the regime wholeheartedly until her Aunt training revealed awful secrets, to Daisy, watching from Canada, and the infamous Aunt Lydia, who helped to build it all.

Margaret Atwood has solidly secured herself as one of the best writers of the time. How she ties in the threads of The Handmaid’s Tale into The Testaments is no small feat, and it’s terrifying just how believable the situations she portrays are. Professional women rounded up and held in a stadium, forced to watch their peers shot if they didn’t agree with the new Commanders, girls banned from reading, other countries turning their backs on the horrors that are flooding out of Gilead. 

If you want to know what happens after The Handmaid’s Tale, this book concludes it in the most satisfying way possible. The Testaments will unravel many of the mysteries of Gilead that we were left with after Offred’s story.

– Lauren Banks

Atwood has been criticised for the Handmaid’s Tale not providing enough context or building up the world of Gilead – not a criticism I share as I liked being kept in the dark. However, The Testaments responds to this by attempting to expand on society and explain how it got to that point, and with this runs through a range of interesting questions. It presents a sobering message that relates to our modern experience of encroaching, insidious policies and dire world circumstances becoming the norm which causes us to be desensitised and passive in the face of horrific news – whether it be climate change, the rise of white nationalism or shootings in the US. As an Aunt from the novel puts it – “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you” (p.66). 

However, despite this attempt at fleshing out the world, it still feels a little rushed, vague and unbelievable at times. Character’s actions and the coldness of the society reads like a parody in serious moments, which is not the emotional depth The Handmaid’s Tale elicited. Atwood’s writing is award-winning for a reason and its always a delight to read her novels, but unfortunately, this is not one of her strongest. 

– Jodie Reeve

The cluttering of bookshop front tables with Margaret Atwood’s latest addition to her bizarre fantasy must be due to either its merit as a work of captivating fiction or its prophetic element.

The rather dull story can’t explain the success, so it must be the agreeable message it delivers: The West is a misogynistic hellscape where women are but servile instruments to be used and gawked at by their male captors. Or, that it’s at least declining into one. Absolute rubbish.

Gilead, the book’s setting, is a much better illustration of another place. Women there are made to shrink like spectres, wreathed in shrouds forced upon them by a theocracy whose highest virtue is submission. Before 1979, women in Iran had been free to dress as they pleased.

But this is ignored and so continues the merry assault on ‘Christian Britain’, which as far as I know makes no such demands of women and doesn’t appear to tend that way.

The Testaments is mildly enjoyable in places but in no way supersedes or improves upon Atwood’s original 1985 book, The Handmaid’s Tale – a clever tome which has since been adapted into a frantically exaggerated and overtly propagandistic television series.

– Ezra James West

Knowing how much I’d loved The Handmaid’s Tale, I set my expectations low for The Testaments. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised. The introduction of the world outside of Gilead gives this text a new dimension to play with, and the use of multiple narrations at once offers a kind of complexity only Atwood could bring. 

Another great thing about this book was how it stands alone. There are potential links towards the first book implied but never explicitly stated, which gives this new book time to expand on its turf. With a tiny bit of background knowledge, I think this book is more than capable of captivating readers on its own. 

My only disappointment in this sequel was the ending. Without giving any overt spoilers away, one of the things I loved about The Handmaid’s Tale was the ambitious ending, that Atwood refused to let her readers breathe a sigh of relief and instead carry with them this anxiety of the unknown. The Testaments, however, wraps everything up in a neat little bow, almost allowing the horror of Gilead to become a footnote of a fictional history. Following The Handmaid’s Tale, the lack of an unsettling ending becomes unsettling in itself, and if Atwood is trying to reassure us that it will all work out in the end, then I don’t quite believe her.

– Ruth Walbank

           Can The Testaments live up to the much-loved Handmaid’s Tale, 34 years after the fact? Atwood’s writing is as fresh and relevant as it ever was in the newest addition to her universe. Split into three perspectives, The Testaments switches between the past and the present, but ultimately gives fans a much-awaited glimpse into Gilead 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale.

The contrast between the perspective of old Aunt Lydia and the two younger girls, Daisy and Agnes, seems to highlight the younger generation’s propensity to hope for better and remain steadfast in the face of opposition. Given the parallels Atwood creates in her choice of narrators, the reader wonders whether she is commenting on the inevitable compliance that comes with age, and the realisation, as Aunt Lydia says, that it is ‘Better to hurl rocks than have them hurled at you.’

Although perhaps necessary to expand the universe, Atwood’s utilisation of three different perspectives, decidedly not including Offred, make for a weaker narrative overall, given that The Handmaid’s Tale was built from her suffering. I am sure that, many fans, like myself, would have loved a sequel that focussed on her subsequent journey. The characters in The Testaments sometimes come across as a reaction to Offred’s story, rather than the main character of their narrative. Despite this, the book as a whole was enjoyable, especially considering the dystopia’s relevance when considering modern-day politics. 

– Lexi Burgess

Ruth-Anne Walbank

My name is Ruth, and I'm the Editor of SCAN for 2019-20. I have been the Arts and Culture Editor in 2018-19, and the Deputy Arts and Culture Editor before that. I've written over 80 articles for SCAN across a variety of sections.
If you have any questions about the newspaper, feel free to message me!

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