Review: Margaret Atwood's 'The Testaments'

For fans of young adult fiction and anything but Margaret Atwood comes Atwood’s latest novel, The Testaments (Penguin, 2019), a novel that is indeed a testament to many things: greed, capitalist-patriarchy, and the death of literary fiction.

Its predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), was a brilliant standalone text, which unequivocally did not need a sequel. As an Atwood scholar I’ve long been suspicious of the corporate televisual bastardisation of her seminary text, but I’ve gotta say, even I was shocked at the new levels to which The Testaments took that bastardisation.

I read this book when it first hit the digital shelves a few months ago, but it has taken me so long to write this because frankly, reader, I’m horrified. I’m horrified that this drivel passes for Atwood. I’m horrified at the skin-crawling way that Hulu’s TV Gilead has bled into Atwood’s Gilead. I’m horrified that it even got a look-in for the Booker Prize, let alone won it (albeit mercifully not alone).

The book is based on the testimonies of three women: Aunt Lydia, Agnes (aka Hannah) and Nicole. The latter two are the biological daughters of Offred, the protagonist of THT, whose future was uncertain at its conclusion.

There was a point to this uncertainty. It let the horror hang in the air. It wasn't an empowering story. It was grinding, gritty and cautionary. The uncertainty focused the reader's mind not on a happy resolution for Offred but on the terror of Gilead and the violence and sex-based oppression that defined it. As a continuation of this story, The Testaments is gratuitous.

What we are offered is two-thirds young adult fiction plot (Agnes and Nicole), and one-third Atwood fan fiction (Aunt Lydia). The McGuffin is some vital data that could compromise the regime, which needs to get to Canada. For some irrational reason, ‘Baby Nicole’ needs to be the courier of this data, even though the resistance has literally lost lives to keep her out of Gilead’s reach. Cue suspense and exciting-ish chase through the wilderness.

Aunt Lydia’s commentary provides the only vaguely Atwoodian content, mostly in the subversive catty asides and brutal truths about the humanity of other characters. But Aunt Lydia irks me the most. She was one of the chief enforcing fascists of the regime in THT. She indoctrinated the womb-slave handmaids with some of the worst aspects of Gilead’s theology and philosophy, assaulting handmaids with cattle prods and cutting their eyes out as punishment for minor infractions. She was a key element of the political message of THT, demonstrating that some women are complicit in the misogynistic, sex-based oppression of other women, and elevating the message to a whole-system critique, instead of a simplistic battle of the sexes.

In The Testaments that careful nuance is undone. Aunt Lydia is given a forgiving backstory and ascends to a merciful, subversive, mother hen archetype. She was a goodie all along, phew! Have her alleged secret resistance activities been at all effective or helpful? Evidently not. Whitewashing her in this way is a copout and it cheapens the entire universe.

There were many points at which I found myself wondering if Atwood even wrote The Testaments at all. While Aunt Lydia’s chapters could pass for Atwood, the teen angst-ridden journeys of Agnes and Baby Nicole were jaw-droppingly formulaic and commercial.

This is not to say that there’s not a place for commercial and/or young adult fiction out there. But to present it as Atwoodian literary fiction? Literary fiction worthy of the Booker Prize, no less? Something has gone terribly wrong here.

But what do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

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