Book Review: Does The Handmaid's Tale Sequel Live Up To The Hype?

Praise be! Margaret Atwood’s highly-anticipated dystopia sequel The Testaments picks up 15 years after the original story


Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale was adapted into a successful TV series. Photo / Youtube

To say that The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, is keenly anticipated is like saying Ben Stokes played a rather useful innings for England.

The novel isn’t published till September 10, yet it is already hot favourite to win the Booker Prize. Critics on BBC Radio 4‘s Front Row confidently picked it as the winner. The fact that they hadn’t even read it yet — generally the best, indeed the only, way to assess a book’s merit — sounded absurd. To be fair, Atwood does have a record of hitting sixes.

Besides, this is one of the most significant sequels in publishing history. There are nuclear submarines whose whereabouts are less closely guarded than advance copies of The Testaments. (It made headlines around the world when the embargo was broken prematurely after Amazon delivered pre-ordered copies early.)

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Publication day will see the 79-year-old author holding court in a sold-out event at the National Theatre which will be broadcast live to 1,300 cinemas from Malta to Atwood’s native Canada.

It is 34 years since The Handmaid’s Tale shocked readers with its portrayal of the Republic of Gilead. With its birth-rate in terminal decline, a coup has taken the United States back by force to its Puritan origins and Biblical salutations. “Praise be!”

Fertile females like Atwood’s heroine, June, have their children and jobs taken away from them and are put to work as handmaids, essentially brood mares who must submit to ritualised rape by their masters. Terrorised by older female enforcers called Aunts, these wombs without free will wear nun-like red habits and white bonnets to preserve them from lustful male eyes, but also to make them easier to track and kill if they flee. Handmaids take the names of their masters, so June became Offred — literally, of Fred.

A number of factors combined recently to put Atwood’s classic dystopia back on the bestseller lists and to lend the new novel extra piquancy. There is a President in the White House who seems to regard the truth as a branch of experimental fiction and whose bullish statements and threat to abortion rights cause liberal Americans to believe they are living in a fascist state.

The MeToo movement shone a spotlight on men as powerfully abusive as Atwood’s Commanders. Above all, an Emmy-winning, lushly filmed TV adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, saw the handmaids become a symbol for young women of whatever they think oppresses them.

One Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, even hosted a Handmaid’s Tale-themed birthday party featuring “iconic red cloaks” for all the guests and cocktails such as “Praise Be Vodka” and “Under His Eye Tequila”. Not sure Kylie quite grasped the whole totalitarian nightmare thing but, hey, literature doesn’t get much more culturally relevant than that!

Could the sequel possibly live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. The Testaments is a much more accessible book than its brilliant yet forbidding predecessor. At times it races along like a spy thriller written by Charles Dickens, rich in suspense, coincidence and messy humanity.

Taking up the story 15 years later, the novel’s first surprise is not that Gilead is still going strong, with other countries having reached cowardly accommodation with the wicked theocracy, but that Offred is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the story is told alternately by two girls, Agnes and Daisy (Offred’s daughters, who have never met), and, retrospectively, through written testaments hidden away for posterity by Aunt Lydia, the Republic’s most powerful woman, who became notorious in the TV show for the diabolical fervour of her cruelty.

Unbeknown to Daisy, her name is actually Nicole — Offred’s baby who was smuggled over the border and adopted, and whose portrait hangs in every Gilead public place as a symbol of stolen innocence.

I don’t feel bad giving away that twist, because it is so strongly, almost clumsily, signposted throughout the novel that Atwood may as well have tattooed “Separated Sisters!” on the girls’ foreheads. More subtly done is the contrast between the siblings. One is a devout product of Gilead — think Emily Dickinson without the fun — while the other is a potty-mouthed, 21st-century teenager who can’t handle the restrictive purity that kept women mute in the West for centuries and, sadly, still silences them in other cultures.

I will never forget the chilling thrill of reading The Handmaid’s Tale when it first came out. I was so engrossed that I missed my stop on the Tube. Like the very best dystopian fiction, it had real toads in its imaginary garden. Atwood made you shudder to see how easily the rights and freedoms we take utterly for granted could disappear and tyranny become the new normal. This sequel will not go down as a landmark in fiction as that book did, but I gobbled it down none the less.

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It is different, definitely; worthy of a place on the Booker shortlist, certainly; and not disappointing like Harper Lee’s woeful Go Set a Watchman was.

Frankly, it’s a relief, after the TV series’s distressing descent into torture porn, to have Atwood’s cool hand back on the wheel.

And what an act of imaginative daring to make the villain who seemingly colluded most with Gilead’s poisonous patriarchy into its avenging female nemesis. At the very end of the novel, Aunt Lydia, who has turned derided women’s gossip into a weapon of mass destruction, addresses us: “If you are reading, this manuscript will have survived. Though perhaps I’m fantasising: perhaps I will never have a reader.”

Oh, you will, dear, and millions of them, too. Margaret Atwood may have been suborned by fans to the anti-Trump cause but, as she proves in these pages, she is far too great and witty a novelist to be limited to one smug, self-congratulatory point of view. By wit, I don’t mean jokes, although there are shafts of laughter in the darkness here. Rather, she has an incredible intellectual nimbleness that challenges us constantly and poses the question that lies like a pearl inside the shell of this frighteningly readable novel. “Before you sit in judgment, how would you behave in Gilead?”

Praise be!

— The Sunday Telegraph

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