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I think I may have been predisposed to dislike this, simply because it comes on the heels of the popularity of the television adaptation of its predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale. I enjoyed the book, but I find the later seasons of the show deeply irritating–they may as well re-title it “American Horror Story: White Feminism” and call it a day. The Testaments is the unnecessary sequel to the novel the hit show about a fundamentalist woman-hating American dystopia is based on, and as I read it, two thoughts repeatedly came to mind..namely “Who asked for this?” and “What is this even for?” 🤷🏾♀️
Here’s the thing: The Handmaid’s Tale was a masterpiece, a haunting, terrifying dystopia intended to warn us not only of the dangers of sexism, fundamentalism, and their policies but also to alert 1980s us to the unjust present reality of women’s lives in many parts of the globe. At the time of its writing, Handmaid was shocking, incisive and challenging. I first read it in my teens and was both horrified and vindicated by the content as I began to understand the difference between what I wanted and what I was expected to want as a young woman with a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. It’s a critical, necessary work and a bit of true genius in the landscape of feminist novels and dystopias.
But time marches on, and so do social sensitivities, concepts of dystopia and understandings of the broader world. While the story of the Testaments picks up several years after the events of the first book, the themes and emotions pick up right where Handmaid left off. As a result, Testaments seems a bit childish and the narrative weirdly episodic—a bit like a YA novelization of the show, written for people too young to read Handmaid yet. It also chooses to spend a lot of time focusing on the character of Aunt Lydia, who is popular in the TV show but isn’t really much of a character in the original novel. I’m not overly interested in the inner thoughts of a powerful woman turned torturer’s assistant, no matter how hard Atwood tries to redeem her. I get the idea behind humanizing the villain, showing how even the strongest person can be broken and used by a hateful system, but because of the simplistic tone of the book, I found it quite hard to care about Aunt Lydia, or any of the other characters, for that matter.
Also, there’s an issue that goes along with this book that no-one seems to be talking about. This book was awarded the 2019 Booker Prize jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s masterpiece Girl, Woman, Other. Evaristo’s book is much better than Atwood’s, and while I don’t know enough about the world of publishing prizes to say for sure, it seemed like a slap in the face to deny Evaristo her solo moment in the sun. Atwood previously won the prize for her novel The Blind Assassin, so it isn’t as though she was being awarded based on age or multiple nominations with no wins. She’s not a literary Leonardo DiCaprio, she just wrote a book that happened to have a hit TV show attached to it. With this as a backdrop, and having read and raved about the other 2019 Booker winner for its groundbreaking storytelling about Black British women, it’s hard for me to see The Testaments as anything other than overrated and over-hyped. It’s even worse when you consider that Evaristo is the first Black woman ever to win a Booker Prize, yet was forced to share her moment with a pandering sequel. On top of that, the book she shared the prize with, and the show it spawned, are both criticized for unfair and under-realized treatment of Black women. I’d call it irony but it almost feels like an intentional slight. I can only hope that the planned television adaptation of Girl, Woman, Other lampshades the unfairness of this in the script somehow(and is less annoying than the televised Handmaid’s Tale has become, but that’s almost impossible not to be).
Atwood is still a master writer, but the book would be more enjoyable if it wasn’t a follow up to Handmaid’s Tale. As it is, it’s nowhere near as chilling and essential as its predecessor, and the associated prize-sharing drama makes me doubt the sincerity of its woman-empowering claims.
3 out of 5 stars
(Thanks for reading beautiful people! This blog has an affiliate relationship with Bookshop, and any clicks and purchases made from links in this post will result in a commission being paid to this blog. If you DO buy a book, make sure it’s Girl, Woman, Other, and not The Testaments. Check The Testaments out from your local library. So there.)