I have to admit I started reading this book with some trepidation.
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale over twenty years ago, have re-read it since, and have always loved it. It’s one of my favourite books of all time, and one of the books that inspired me to write.
So a sequel was both something to be anticipated…and something to dread?
What if Atwood had lost her mojo? What if the book was a pale imitation of its predecessor?
There was only one way to find out.
I was at my local Waterstones at five past nine on the morning the book was released, picking up my copy which I’d ordered months ago – so long ago that if it hadn’t been for the email from Waterstones, I might have forgotten I’d pre-ordered it.
As soon as I finished the book I was reading, this would sail right up to the top of my To Be Read pile.
So the next day I opened it with anticipation – hoping, hoping it would live up to expectations.
The short answer? It did. It really did.
You might expect that Atwood would take the obvious route for a sequel, as they did for the TV series; that she’d follow Offred’s continuing story, and tell us whether at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale she was being taken to safety or to increasing danger.
But Margaret Atwood is cleverer than the average TV writer (even than the above-average TV writers responsible for the HBO adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale).
Instead of following Offred, we get to meet three more women, two of whom are girls at the beginning of the book, and one of whom is someone we love to hate from The Handmaid’s Tale.
I’m not going to spoil things too much by telling you that one of the POV characters is Aunt Lydia. The dreadful, cruel Aunt Lydia who seems to relish inflicting pain and humiliation on the poor women at the Red Centre.
In The Testaments, Atwood humanises Lydia. She helps us understand the terrible choices she has made to find herself where she is now. And she shows us that Lydia has more admirable long term ambitions…
The other characters were interesting too. By following a girl brought up in Gilead and another girl raised in Canada, we see in sharp focus the way Gilead indoctrinates its girls and moulds them into the young women it expects them to be.
And there is a hinted Offred link…
All in all, The Testaments is a wonderful book. It enhances our understanding of Gilead, moves the wider story forward, and fills in the gaps left at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.
If you’re like me and you’ve always loved The Handmaid’s Tale, read The Testaments. You won’t regret it.