Book Review: THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is such an iconic sci-fi novel that I’m surprised it took this long to get a sequel. Despite the decades Margaret Atwood has had to think over what Gilead might look like after the end of Offred’s story, I found The Testaments to be underbaked, full of interesting ideas (and interesting imagery, especially) that don’t blend all that well. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which was narrowly, almost claustrophobically focused on Offred’s story, The Testaments sprawls across the lives of three new characters: an Aunt, a privileged Commander’s daughter, and a Canadian teenager who’s only dimly aware of the horrors of the totalitarian state of Gilead.

I think I would have liked The Testaments more if I had liked The Handmaid’s Tale less. Is it worth reading? Yes. But it’s significantly blunter and messier than I had hoped. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was a scalpel, The Testaments is a machine gun, crude and loud.

You can read my full review below.


The Testaments Cover
cover description: A minimalist illustration of a woman in a bright green cloak and white bonnet against a navy blue background. The opening of the cloak is stylized to look like a woman wearing a ponytail, her arms extended toward the sky.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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  • publisher: Nan A. Talese (Knopf Doubleday)
  • publication date: September 10, 2019
  • length: 432 pages

You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.

–from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Novels are not a visual medium in the way that TV and film are, so it’s notable that The Handmaid’s Tale spawned so much iconic imagery, even before the TV adaptation came to Hulu. The red and white Handmaids’ costume, the shops with pictures on their signs instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read, Offred rubbing margarine into her hands instead of lotion, because she is no longer permitted the luxury of lotion: I can picture all of that (and more) so clearly, despite how long it’s been since I’ve read the novel.

The Testaments is just as visually iconic as The Handmaid’s Tale, full of new visions of oppression and totalitarianism that will haunt my nightmares. But its underlying substance is significantly less memorable.

Though The Testaments is set in the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, it feels surprisingly much like a rehash of The Blind Assassinthe novel that just barely beats out The Handmaid’s Tale for the title of my favorite book by Atwood.

There are three central characters in The Testaments: a powerful Aunt and architect of Gilead, a young daughter of a privileged Gilead family, and a Canadian girl with only a distant awareness of Gilead’s atrocities.

All of them have ties to the original novel (some of them wincingly obvious despite being framed as a “twist”), and all of them reminded me in some way of the protagonist of The Blind Assassin, Iris. There are even maids, called Marthas, who are reminiscent of Iris’s nanny Reenie, right down to making dough people for a privileged but heartbroken young girl to play with after a tragedy.

It’s not just that it shares themes with The Blind Assassin. That would be fine! Authors with an output as vast as Atwood’s tend to come back to the same wells from time to time. It’s that the parallels to The Blind Assassin are so obvious and so oddly self-plagiarizing that they repeatedly pulled me out of the story.

In fairness, the story of The Testaments is so sprawling and dense that it’s not hard to be distracted from it.

What I admired most about The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t the worldbuilding of Gilead, despite that worldbuilding being extraordinarily good. What I admired most was Atwood’s laser focus on Gilead’s impact on Offred. The way that Offred’s life becomes so critically important to the reader even though she is just one tiny, literally anonymous part of this terrifying totalitarian regime rings true to the way real life totalitarian regimes swallow people whole and disappear them.

The Testaments shifts that focus from individuals in Gilead to the systems fighting to uphold it or undo it. It’s a bird’s eye view when I wanted a close-up, and it leaches all the urgency and terror out of Gilead. Maybe that’s the point! Maybe it’s supposed to feel hopeful, especially now that the real America feels closer to Gilead than ever. But it left me a little cold.

This loss of momentum and stakes is most obvious at the end, which uses the same device as the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: a far-future academic conference on Gilead Studies. But where the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale felt chillingly open-ended and detached, The Testaments’ ending feels winkingly obvious and overwrought.

If you love The Handmaid’s Tale, you likely won’t be able to resist reading The Testaments, nor should you. There’s plenty of interesting stuff here that makes the novel worth reading. I especially loved the character of Agnes (a Commander’s privileged daughter), whose slow disentangling of her sincere religious beliefs from the poisonous spiritual abuse she experiences in Gilead is genuinely heartbreaking.

But in its attempt to satisfy readers’ curiosity about Gilead, The Testaments stifles it with too much detail instead, replacing an open door for our imaginations with one that firmly shuts. It’s a shame. ★★☆

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I borrowed my copy of The Testaments from a friend. I was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

The Handmaid’s Tale gets a graphic novel. What do you think?

I’m not sure how I missed this news when it was announced earlier, but it turns out Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a graphic novel adaptation. It hits shelves tomorrow and looks absolutely gorgeous: head over to io9 to see the exclusive images from behind this edition’s enigmatic cover.

Mild spoilers for the original novel below. I’m not spoiling the ending of Offred’s story, but I will be discussing details of the novel’s structure.

The Handmaid's Tale Graphic Novel Cover.jpeg

I am fascinated by adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale because, in typical Margaret Atwood fashion, the original novel had such an unusual format. At the end of the novel, we discover that Offred had been telling her own story via cassette tape, and that we had been reading the “transcripts” of these tapes as collected by historians.

I’ve always thought that this detail is what made The Handmaid’s Tale so haunting. In the epilogue, the horrifying events we experienced through Offred’s eyes in Gilead are being dissected, sympathetically but distantly, by academics hundreds of years in the future, in a similar fashion to how many people discuss horrifying events like the Spanish Inquisition or the transatlantic slave trade today.

It’s also a detail that loses some of its magic as soon as we get visuals, whether that’s via a graphic novel or hit TV show. You can’t exactly transmit images via audio, so it’s hard to maintain the cassette tape conceit. That gives the story a myopic immediacy that I don’t love.

Despite that gripe, which I realize is pretty pedantic–I just love that original ending so much–I’m very interested in the graphic novel. I sometimes struggle to read graphic novels because my eyes just can’t seem to follow the panels correctly, but the panels previewed over at io9 seem crisp and deceptively simple in a way that I find really appealing.

The graphic novel’s art and adaptation are by Canadian artist Renée Nault, who chose not to watch Hulu’s TV adaptation in favor of forging her own visual style and version of the story. That also appeals to me, since I thought the TV show had some weird plot holes (its refusal to engage with racial inequality in a far right society like Gilead being the biggest one, I thought) and was definitely too violent for me to stomach onscreen.

My personal copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is a yellowed, battered, much-thumbed trade paperback that reflects my love of this seminal novel in one way: every read and re-read are inscribed on the pages through every dog-ear, taped-up tear, and tea stain.

It looks like the graphic novel is going to reflect my love in another, equally important way: it turns a beloved book into an art object, something to be not only read, but admired page by page.

I think I’ll be heading to the bookstore for a copy when it drops tomorrow, March 26.

What do you think of this graphic novel adaptation? Are you excited, or do you have reservations? What do you think of Renée Nault’s art style? (I think her work looks a little bit like the illustrations you see in children’s books and especially children’s Bibles, which I think is an intriguing choice for the material.)

You can order The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel from the Penguin Random House website, which features handy links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and other booksellers. You can also check it out over at Goodreads.

And don’t forget to check out io9’s exclusive look at the book, without which I would not have been able to write this post.