Book Review – Testaments  

By Margaret Attwood
Published by Penguin

Since its publication in September, Margaret Attwood’s long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale has made literary history at least twice. It was the first book ever to be longlisted for the Booker prize before its publication and it was kept securely under wraps just as the later Harry Potter titles were. Second, it co-won the Booker alongside Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other in defiance of the rules which demand the choice of a single overall winner.

The Handmaid’s Tale (leaving aside the TV adaptation) is very familiar to English teachers because it has long been widely taught as a set text at A level – and it ends inconclusively. Testaments is, in many ways, a more optimistic novel because it is told as story within a story. We’re in the 22nd century at an academic conference at which the rise and fall of the old state of Gilead is examined through recently found papers – the titular testaments – which is a neat device for the accommodation of multiple narrators. 

Yes, the handmaids were treated like off-spring producing dairy cattle and critics – or suspected critics – of the regime, including anyone with enough education to think for themselves were ruthlessly eliminated but that’s all in the past now that we’ve returned to a more civilised way of life.   

The character of Aunt Lydia pulls a few surprises and is nicely drawn. And I loved the deftness of the accounts of the (rare) delivery of a healthy child.

Testaments has been criticised for pandering for populism and it’s certainly a more accessible read than many Attwood novels (try her 1972 Surfacing for instance). Being a “page turner” is no bad thing, obviously, although I doubt that Testaments will ever achieve the near-iconic status of The Handmaid’s Tale. Interesting novel for students and their teachers, not to mention book groups all over the English speaking world, to move on to, though. There’s a lot of scope for discussion and comparison here.

Reviewed by Susan Elkin  

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