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.