Book review: The Testaments brings Atwood's Handmaid's Tale to a definitive close

Book review: The Testaments brings Atwood's Handmaid's Tale to a definitive close
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's latest book hasn't been released yet has already scored the author a nomination for the Booker Prize. While judging is shrouded in secrecy, Joyce Fegan got her hands on an early copy of The Testaments.

"You might want to arm yourself with these thoughts: knowledge is power and history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme".

These are the warnings of Canadian author Margaret Atwood at the start of her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments, which is published at midnight tomorrow, after much hype, many non-disclosure agreements and plenty of leaks.

Whether you are a devoted reader of the 79-year-old Man Booker prize-winning author, a fan of the TV series based on her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, or an ordinary citizen who has heard of her name or that of her most famous book - there is no doubt that tonight's global publication is the most anticipated event of 2019's literary calendar, or perhaps since 2007, when the final Harry Potter novel was released.

But what's it all about?

In 1985, Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale. It depicts radical religious fanatics who stage a coup in an America that is ravaged by terminal birth rates, environmental disaster and disease. The American constitution has been suspended, newspapers are censored and women are routinely raped to breed children for the men in charge of the Republic of Gilead.

The dystopian book has never gone out of print, and in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected as the President of the United States of America, it became a symbol of resistance against the disempowerment of women in the face of explicit misogyny and the stripping back of reproductive rights.

At women's marches around the world people wore wine capes and white hoods, depicting the handmaids of the 1985 novel. In 2017, a TV adaption of The Handmaid's Tale launched in the UK, giving the 1985 novel a 16-week run on the Sunday Times bestseller list. The TV show went on to win 11 Emmy awards and two Golden Globes. Its third season was launched this summer, followed by the news that a fourth had been commissioned.

As Donald Trump storms into election 2020 with millions of dollars in fundraising, The Handmaid's Tale continues to simultaneously soar in popularity.

And then Atwood, who turns 80 in November, publishes its sequel.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments has made the shortlist (Booker Prizes/PA)
Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments has made the shortlist (Booker Prizes/PA)

What happens after a theocratic regime has bedded in? Have bids for freedom to neighbouring Canada become a thing of the past? And is resistance futile in the face of relentless oppression?

Set more than 15 years after the first novel, three different women narrate their lives in the first person, telling us what life has been life in the intervening years.

One testimony is written by Lydia, an aunt, a woman whose job it is to indoctrinate and educate the handmaids. The second is the recorded testimony of a young woman called Agnes who tells us what it was like to grow up in Gilead. And the third testimony belongs to a teenage girl named Daisy who grew up over the border in Canada.

While The Handmaid's Tale gave us the hopeless passivity and powerlessness of women, in The Testaments our characters find some semblance of power.

There are signs of strength and hope, where one would not expect, but it is something needed with 2020 on the horizon.

And while The Handmaid's Tale ended with a question in 1985, The Testaments' definitive close, most certainly does not.

At midnight tomorrow, amongst placard-making and embroidery circles, Atwood will read live from her latest novel at Waterstones in London's Piccadilly, and readers will finally be able to get their own copy of the book to find out what happens next.

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