A Handmaid’s Sequel

I’m not quite sure what I was looking for when I delved into The Testaments. I’m sure I expected an acknowledgement of where we are now, and a reflection on how it all seemingly got worse. Perhaps I was looking for some form of hope. An indication that no matter how bad it’s going to get we can find a way out. Regardless of my hopes, I’m not sure I got what I wanted from Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel.

I mostly enjoyed reading The Testaments. It’s an engaging enough story. If it hadn’t had such big shoes to fill perhaps I might appreciate it more. Having said that, even if it shed the heavy expectations I don’t think it lives up to what I know Margaret Atwood can do. 

The book, the testaments, sitting on outstretched legs on a park bench

The story is told through three perspectives, one of whom is the already familiar Aunt Lydia. These are the chapters I liked the least. I saw someone describe this book as reading like fanfiction of the original, and when we were in Aunt Lydia’s head I felt that particularly resonated. I would be interested to know why Atwood chose to try and redeem Aunt Lydia. I would be interested to know whether other readers feel she was redeemed. I felt her characterisation was somewhat underdeveloped. I feel that perhaps anyone could have slipped into her shoes. 

We can only assume the two other characters are June’s daughters. As with Aunt Lydia, I am completely lost on the motivations of these characters. I think Atwood knew parts of the story she wanted to tell and knew which characters she wanted us to meet or explore, but maybe didn’t consider whether these characters she was interested in were well matched to the events that she wanted to take place.

A further element that sat uncomfortably was the way relevance to our current society felt shoehorned in. The Handmaid’s Tale has recaptured our attention in recent years because our fears for society increasingly line up with the events in the book. The Testaments had an opportunity to exploit that fear and really hit us where it hurts. Instead, the efforts to be more relevant to our present lived reality feel cheesy and poorly considered. A lazy mention of climate change that made no sense at all frustrated me with its thoughtlessness. The Handmaid’s Tale did a much better job of reflecting a possible reality, if only because it wasn’t trying so hard.

I love Margaret Atwood, and I think she creates spectacular things. I expected this book to be important, but I don’t think it has added anything to the conversation that its predecessor wasn’t able to.

What I am glad of is that Atwood did choose to offer hope. Sure, we knew Gilead eventually fell as the close of The Handmaid’s Tale, but somehow throughout The Testaments, I was poised for everything to fall apart, and the characters good intentions to ultimately be hopeless. Most likely that says something about how helpless I’ve been feeling lately.

There will always be those of us willing to do the right thing no matter the cost. Let’s hope we’re not all left to do it alone.

Is it blasphemy to dog-ear your books?

I might be about to alienate quite a large number of my fellow book lovers.

I like dog-earing books.

Now quickly, before you all yell at me, I’m not always doing it. I like having nice bookmarks, with stunning images or lovely book quotes. But sometimes you don’t have one at hand, and folding down the corner is just…not that bad. Like, obviously I’m not going to do it to a library book, or a borrowed book. But with my own books? I enjoy giving them some character.

Recently an event called ‘BookTube-A-Thon’ happened, I wasn’t too involved (because I’m working full time and was in a different time zone and it’s all too complicated) but I liked keeping an eye on what was going on. One of the polls they posted to their twitter was about marginalia. Did we approve of it? Or must books be left untouched? I was surprised at the proportion of responses that opposed it. I don’t write in my books often, but I find my heart lifts a little when a book I pick up from a second hand store has a message inside. No, it wasn’t put there for me to read, but it’s entered my life anyway, and it gives me just a hint of a look into the life that had this book before me.

To me, a book in its original state is far less charming than those with marks and creases throughout their pages. I see my copy of ‘Time Stops for no mouse’ and I see the ratty corner, where I accidentally let it dip into the bath while I was reading. I see the extraordinarily creased cover, and ridiculous number of folded corners in ‘Un Lun Dun’ and consider every moment it has got me through, and how I love it still. Those books of mine that sit perfectly, as though they were untouched since purchase, give me little joy in comparison. I’m sure I loved them, when I read them, but there is nothing to that book that lights a spark in my memory. Without a dog eared page, or a note to google something, the place of that book in my life is not so easily remembered.

And I see why people like to keep their books pristine. For one thing, explaining your book is messed up because you dropped it in a bath is not the best way to impress people. Also picking up a fresh, new book can have its own sense of satisfaction in it. Maybe it has a beautiful cover you want to preserve, or it’s a special edition. I wouldn’t want to cast judgement on how someone else looks after their books, because we all show love in a different way. But to me, a well-loved book shows it has been loved.

It’s like my blanket as a child (named Mussy, because it was made of muslin). By the time I grew out of mussy (far later than I should have) he was a mere few scraps of muslin sewed into a newer piece. I had cuddled that blanket almost every night for ears and years of my life. Of course it fell apart. That blanket dealt with a lot of my emotional turmoil. Books are the same to me. They’ve always been there for me, even when people in the real world couldn’t be. I like to remember that when I look at them. And I like to think when I pass my books on to someone else (not that I’m very good at letting go) they will see a folded page, a scribbled note, a wee message from my grandma, and they will know that this book was something special to someone.

Oh and I also bend the spine back too far a lot… it’s just more comfortable to read it that way!
Let me know if you like writing in your books, or leaving a trace of yourself in it’s pages, I’d love to hear other opinions and why you feel that way…