THOUGHTS ON: The Testaments

By Margaret Atwood

Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.”

TESTAMENTS LARGELike most devoted Atwoodians, i.e. those of us who admired the author’s work long before MGM/Hulu adapted her dystopian novel for TV, I have been increasingly edgy in the weeks leading up to the publication of The Testaments – her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I worried she may have set herself a near impossible task and feared the story would be perceived as contrived. Might this most longed-for of duologies fall short of expectations and damage her not inconsiderable reputation? In addition to my excitement at the coming of a new novel from the high priestess of prophetic literary fiction, I openly admit to having felt anxiety on her behalf.

How ridiculous my apprehension now seems. I needn’t have worried because Margaret Atwood is a novelistic giant who rises to every undertaking. Her return to the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead some fifteen years after the tantalisingly open-ended conclusion of her seminal masterpiece is every bit as terrifying as the original (in some ways, more so), yet leaves one with hope for the future.

Our time together is about to begin, my reader. Possibly you will view these pages of mine as a fragile treasure box, to be opened with the utmost care. Possibly you will tear them apart, or burn them: that often happens with words.”

There are signs Gilead is decaying from within. The story is told alternately by three female characters, one of whom played a significant role in The Handmaid’s Tale – a novel first published in 1985 at a time when none of us could have predicted it would become a point of reference in the age of Trump.

I have no intention of divulging the plot, other than to share the basic details supplied by Atwood herself prior to publication. I resorted to extreme measures in order not to stumble upon key elements of the text prior to my first reading, so it seems only fair that I quell my desire to analyse every shrewd phrase, chilling revelation and hairpin bend of the narrative.

Suffice it to say, I was impressed. From its neon green cover image of a bonnet-clad handmaid to its tension-building tale of internal subterfuge, I was enthralled from beginning to end. Atwood has succeeded in creating a witty and immersive fable of a dehumanizing, patriarchal society, which is a clever hybrid of speculative fiction and spy thriller.

Margaret Atwood’s brilliance as a storyteller is undiminished. She remains a zeitgeist through ‘interesting times’.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Categories: Feminist, Literary Fiction, Margaret Atwood, Sci-Fi / Speculative Fiction

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55 replies

  1. I so agree: “How ridiculous my apprehension seems now.”
    What I said, in my own Sept. 11 review (also spoiler-free) is “I was even more skeptical about Atwood’s sequel, The Testaments. How could it possibly be as important, as much of a call to action, as The Handmaid’s Tale? How could it co-exist with the tv show?”
    It is and it does.

  2. I haven’t loved a lot of her more recent stuff and was totally relieved to enjoy this, and be taken back.

  3. Well, that’s good to know! And thank you for not including any spoilers – when I eventually get to this I want it to be hot on the heels of a re-read of Handmaid and with a fresh and unbiassed mind! 😀

  4. Thank you for the recommendation. The release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” was such a traumatic experience for me that I’ve been reluctant to pick up Atwood’s latest. But you’ve convinced me. Should I reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” before starting “The Testaments”?

    • Much depends on how long it has been since you last read The Handmaid’s Tale. It certainly won’t hurt to refresh your memory but it’s by no means essential that you read the first book again before embarking on the second. I very much hope you enjoy The Testaments, Mary. 😊

  5. I’m still undecided whether I want to read this…. I have this dread that it will prove a disappointment after he Handmaids Tale and will spoil my love of that first exposure to Gilead

  6. I loved this too. It’s a hard one to review (I found). I think Atwood’s achievement is astonishing really.

  7. You made me curious, Paula! I do hope this book has something important to say, but my most recent experience with Atwood (The Heart Goes Last) left a lot to be desired. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it though!

  8. High praise indeed, Paula, sounds deserving of the accolades 🙂

  9. Excellent review, with just the right amount of detail to tantalize!

  10. It is a fascinating review, with an interesting conclusion. With regard to the philosophy of history, I think it was Vico who believed it to be cyclical, whereas you seem to be speaking via the Hegelian spirit. When it comes to Atwood, we have herstory (that I would like to read (as a great admirer of her early novels)), and I wonder to what extent she pays attention to what is left of the material world. I heard that she may have mocked academia in this bold text, and her intelligence in developing a hybrid page turner makes me reflect on a real world comment made by Engels:

    “it really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce, Caussidière for Danton, L. Blanc for Robespierre, Barthélemy for Saint-Just, Flocon for Carnot, and the moon-calf together with the first available dozen debt-encumbered lieutenants for the little corporal and his band of marshals.”

  11. I had no intention of reading this as I’m not so keen on authors revisiting their books but you make it sound very good. So, maybe, I’ll cave in.

  12. What a wonderful review! I, too, have felt the same apprehensions of this book’s power, and I’ve had it sitting unread on my shelf from the Hold position at the library where I’d been eagerly anticipating picking it up since it was published. I haven’t been eager to open it. I agree that she is a novelist with great power, but my first hesitation comes from adoring her earlier work more than her dystopian fiction from these later years. Oryx and Crake? Did not like it…I even felt The Handmaid’s Tale was more exalted than it deserved. However, I especially like how you mentioned that there is an element of hope, and that, to me, is a redeeming factor above all. (Donna Tartt, whose The Secret History and The Goldfinch I eagerly devoured more than once, leaves us with little hope whatsoever, and it is most difficult to close the last page with such despair.)

    • Atwood moves between genres, and I know some readers adore her historical and feminist novels, for instance, while hating her speculative fiction. Luckily, I really enjoyed the Oryx and Crake trilogy – and The Handmaid’s Tail is one of my all-time favourites – although I’m not really a reader of SF. You may well prefer The Testaments, Dolce. I see several critics have said it was surprisingly ‘fun’ to read, and in this I concur because she is such a witty writer. The reader is definitely left with a feeling of optimism at the end. I hope you feel able to take the book off the shelf and give it a go! 😊

      • I plan on doing that, Paula, especially with the help of your review. (My personal Atwood favorites are The Robber Bride and Cat’s Eye.)❤

  13. I was nervous about it too but I really enjoyed it! I thought it was quite different to The Handmaid’s Tale in tone but just as compelling. Great review! 😊

  14. Well. I’m going to be very honest here. I am not a fan of Atwood. I’ve read several of her books and The Handmaid’s Tale twice – hoping to see what others see. But I struggle. I’ve caught some brief footage of her discussing The Testaments and found it irritating: she seemed to be presented as some sort of prophet to be revered and I found it uncomfortable to say the least. But it was just a brief snippet and I can’t recall who was interviewing or any context beyond the imminent publication of the book. And I can’t escape the fact that she is undoubtedly an important novelist and feminist and a strong and fascinating woman. So I want to be able to appreciate her work, I just haven’t managed to and I had decided to let it pass. Now I read your review, Paula, and I think maybe – maybe I should give this one a try. A final attempt at appreciating Atwood! But to relieve you of all pressure I shall make no decision based on just what you have written here. I’ll let it sink in, maybe read a few more pieces about the book and the hype and we shall see what happens! Great review! (If you knew how firmly entrenched I was about not reading this book you would be able to appreciate the impact that it’s had 😉 ) And regardless of all that, I’m delighted that it didn’t disappoint you! 🤗

    • Thank you, Sandra. 🤗

      I do feel for those of you who aren’t admirers of Atwood – it’s been wall-to-wall The Testaments for weeks (if not months) now. I’ve found the whole thing quite exciting but I appreciate your comments re. Atwood the “prophet” – she has an uncanny knack for anticipating societal developments and she’s a very clever and witty person but she’s certainly not some sort of seer (I’m sure she would be the first to agree). I’m relieved to know you won’t read The Testaments on my say so alone as we can’t all love the same authors and books. However, I hope at the very least you ‘like’ this novel should, of course, you decide have a bash. 🤞😊

  15. So good to hear Paula! If anyone is equal to the humongous weight of expectation its Margaret Atwood.

    • She never appears to be intimidated by anything. She’ll be 80 in November but she’s still zooming about the globe from one promotional event to another. I was sad to hear she lost her partner only a couple of weeks ago – they’ve been together for so long and seemed like the perfect match. I believe he’d had dementia for some time, so perhaps it wasn’t a complete shock. Nevertheless, an awful thing to happen at any time.

      Do you intend to read The Testaments, Madame B?

      • The idea that she’s 80 is just incredible! I didn’t know she’d lost her partner, how sad. As you say, they were together for so long. Yes, I’ll definitely be reading The Testaments, I’ve been convinced! I’m going to re-read The Handmaid’s Tale first, as I last read it when I was 15 – a long, long time ago 😀

  16. I was so glad this was all I wanted it to be, but found it very hard to review! You’ve done a good job here!

    • Oh, I agree, it’s never easy to critique Atwood but this one was the trickiest yet. I very much enjoyed your review, Liz, and I’m so glad you found it a satisfactory experience. Many thanks for your kind comments. 😊

  17. Glad it met expectations. I’ve decided to do a quick Handmaid’s reread before starting this.

  18. Very concisely reviewed, Paula. I’ve been watching the Handmaid’s Tale TV series, but I’ve never read the novel. I’d be interested in giving The Testaments a go, and perhaps the prequel too as she sounds like a very capable, imaginative writer and I do love novels that do things a little differently while still fully immersing you in their world. xx

    • Thank you, Caz. 🤗 I have to confess to watching only part one of the very first series of THT – and that was because I knew Margaret Atwood was making a cameo appearance. I’ve nothing whatsoever against the TV adaption, in fact I’ve heard it’s very good, but I’m one of those rather sad and pretentious book purists. I simply couldn’t bear to have my image of the characters (or reading of the book) altered in any way. If there were such a thing as an Atwood Anorak’s Anonymous group, I should probably be a member. 🤓

  19. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to very soon. Your review has me longing to read it even more than I already was!
    I remember feeling nervous for her, too, before all the positive reviews started coming – how could I have doubted?
    I love that line at the end about history!

  20. I’m so eager to read this – and, now, even more so, hearing that your anxiety has shifted into admiration.

    Isn’t it funny to hear people criticizing her for having had her uncanny knack for making some solid predictions about the future? If she hadn’t been correct, everyone would have laughed her off. But, because she has put her intelligence to work and made some accurate predictions, she is targeted for it and is accused of being this or that (when it’s the media who presents her as a prophet because it’s such a lovely headline).

    So sad to think of any older author trying to cope with the loss of a lifetime partner while fulfulling all the work requirements of a major book release and tour like this one. After so many years. *sigh*


    I have to admit I was disappointed with what she did with Aunt Lydia’s backstory. Not everyone has secretly been good all along. Some people really are crazy bible-bashers who will get violent in name of their beliefs. I go into this more on my own page.


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