Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

How do you review a book that was long-listed for the Booker Prize before it was even released, won the coveted prize jointly with another title, even though that is against the rules, and is displayed prominently in every bookshop and every Big W across Australia. How can any reviewer possibly write a fair assessment of a novel that has received so much hype, and has been embraced so warmly by readers?

For this reviewer, with great difficulty.

A sequel to Atwood's acclaimed novel The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments takes readers back to the Gilead, and introduces us to three different narrators--the formidable Aunt Lydia, a child named Agnes who is growing up in Gilead and Daisy, a young woman who has little idea how much freedom she has in Canada until her adopted parents are murdered and a shocking secret about her past in revealed. Eventually, the three characters all intersect in a story that neatly ties up any loose ends that were left behind in The Handmaid's Tale, whilst offering plenty of social commentary along the way. 

There are no doubts about it, this is an enjoyable read. There is something hugely enjoyable about Atwood's slightly mischievous prose and just waiting to see how the story will come together. And it is undoubtably going to be one of the few Booker Prize winners that will be truly enjoyed by a broad readership. And yet ... there is also a sense that something is not quite right with this one. The Handmaid's Tale never struck me as the kind of book that needed a sequel, though I suppose with the recent television series gaining momentum, it gives the author opportunity to have some creative control and the final word on what really happened in Gilead after Offred's escape. There's also the question of the enduring and perhaps unexpected appeal of the original some thirty years after it was released. But for all the hype and awards that The Testaments has received, it is really more of a belated celebration of the cultural impact of the original? In all honestly, I don't know. It's a good book, I liked it, a lot of other readers liked it, and it has won the most important literary prize in the world. As for The Handmaid's Tale, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986, losing out to The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis, a book which, so far as I know, is not enjoying the same level of cultural impact in 2020 as it did in 1986.

The Testaments is an intriguing read, regardless.


PS Margaret Atwood will be touring Australia in late February/early March and will be visiting most capital cities though, strangely, Adelaide is not one of them. 


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