I will start by saying that I almost never let myself get carried away by book hype. The last time I did anything like buying a book on purpose on pre-order to arrive on the day of publication, apart from style guides for work, was probably when I bought Harry Potter Five from a bookshop in the evening of the day of publication and read it through. And that wasn’t brilliant. I remember falling for the hype over “Girl with a Pearl Earring” but not reading it in hardback, and I didn’t even buy my beloved Iris Murdoch on the day she came out in hardback when I was old enough to know of her. But “The Testaments”, the long-awaited sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” that I knew loads of other friends and book bloggers would be pouncing on? It had to be done.

I wasn’t actually able to start reading it that day. I had a Terrible Cold and didn’t want to sneeze near my pristine copy, and I was waiting for Matthew to finish reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” which I’d finished the night before in a bit of a reading frenzy (see my review of that one here).

Margaret Atwood – “The Testaments”

(10 September 2019)

So we knew the general premise of this, that it was a follow-up, but not a straight sequel, to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, and it was going to be in the form of the testaments or writings of three witnesses to the flowering and fall of Gilead. And you know what, that’s all I can really say without spoilers. Although it’s a work of literary fiction, beautifully written with not a single error I could spot, beautifully produced, an object of joy with its woven green bookmark, it is, essentially, a book you’re going to read for the world-building, commentary on modern life and plot. And you can’t really talk about those without spoilers, and it’s just too soon.

I will say that this book was all that I wanted it to be. Re-reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which I do urge people to do before reading this) gave me a good few things that I wanted to see in this book (and I don’t think that’s introducing spoilers, because I’m guessing different people would want different things). Not every mystery from that book is answered; not every mystery in this book is answered, but I was a happy, satisfied reader by the end.

There were plenty of twists and surprises, some wanted, predicted from tiny clues and then given, others a shock (there was an actual gasp at one point). It’s a coherent world that makes sense, and we get a much more 360-dgree view of Gilead this time, rather than the narrow view seen through the blinkers of a veiled Handmaid who is trying to negotiate her new life and remember her past life: we see it from within and outside, from before, during and after.

It’s a fascinating investigation into how you can be a normal person and become a mid-range power in a hostile regime, keeping power and gaining it, trading it. It looks at how different personalities might take that power differently, and just what you might do to keep it (the book I would say is as graphic and violent as “The Handmaid’s Tale”, in similar ways: it’s the psychological considerations that creep into your mind). It also looks at how you might feel you were able to redeem yourself by working from the inside in various ways – but do the ends justify the means?

In echoes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, done nicely, we have one narrator who is addressing an audience they do not even know will read their testimony. The mentions of tulip flowers are another nice touch. Books have an effect again. Female solidarity helps again, and might form a network for revolution, although women still work against each other, too. I found myself sucked into the world, believing it almost as reportage, enthralled by a small mention of what has happened in Europe and England, as if I was reading reality.

I highly recommend this. It will give you a lot to think about. Read “The Handmaid’s Tale” first (or re-read it). There’s no need to watch the TV series if you don’t want to: Atwood has talked publicly about her relationship with that and its with the writing of this book, though, and that makes interesting reading.

Read Ali’s review here. Of course we read it at the same time. Her review is longer but doesn’t have spoilers, although details of The Handmaid’s Tale are mentioned so you might want to save it if you haven’t read that one yet.