Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ and our insatiable hunger for stories

(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The Testaments’
The second part of the Gilead series
and the sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Book first published in 2019
Review first written on September 23, 2019
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5))


More than fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power, but there are signs it is beginning to rot from within. At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge, with potentially explosive results.

Two have grown up as part of the first generation to come of age in the new order. The testimonies of these two young women are joined by a third voice: a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.

My view

Whether you love it or hate it, you would probably think it is the first part that should have won, but Booker judges are a bit slow (they awarded McEwan for Amsterdam instead of Atonement)

“My larger fear: that all my efforts will prove futile, and Gilead will last for a thousand years. Most of the time, that is what it feels like here, far away from the war, in the still heart of the tornado. So peaceful, the streets; so tranquil, so orderly; yet underneath the deceptively placid surfaces, a tremor, like that near a high-voltage power line. We’re stretched thin, all of us; we vibrate; we quiver, we’re always on the alert. Reign of terror, they used to say, but terror does not exactly reign. Instead, it paralyzes. Hence the unnatural quiet.”

Margaret Atwood
Aunt Lydia in Netflix series based on ‘Th Handmaid’s Tale’ and sharing its name

I am always suspicious of sequels to popular books that were not planned by the author when he or she was writing the original book. There is a big chance that it might just turn out to be a big compromise on an aesthetic for commercial benefit. I mean consider how much the sequel of ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ spoiled the love people had for it. JKRowling was wise when she decided to stop pursuing the Harry Potter world after seven books (the few Pottermore she herself has written are actually good) but then she seems to have encouraged sequels by other authors which didn’t get that much credit. The consumer demand that such sequels try to satisfy is obvious. Some books just grab that big a part in one’s consciousness. Stories make children of us all – just we don’t ask for the same story to be repeated again; rather we want more to be added to the same story. Not that all the questions ever get answered. You could read this one and wonder who were the first people within Gilead to raise their voices after corruption at the top was revealed? Journalists? Handmaids? How would the lives of the generation raised in Gilead after they leave their world of darkness? What would be the form of the new government formed by such people who do not know better than to turn to the bible they haven’t read for a solution to their problems? People who have once fallen to the totalitarian rule are vulnerable to it for several generations as the history of several countries shows. Democracy is as much a culture as a political system. So did post-Gilead USA fell back to old ways again? A number of such fan fiction can be, I guess, imagined. Atwood herself doesn’t mention whether the Handmaid that was the actual mother of Nichole was the Offred of the previous book. A good artist doesn’t feel compelled to answer all the questions. An example would Raymond Chandler with his ‘The Big Sleep’ (not that I liked that book).

I guess the books that create alternative worlds are most likely to encourage the same instinct which is why I wonder why there was no sequel to 1984. Anyway, coming back to Testaments – it has some good parts but it fades in comparison to Handmaid’s Tale, though it is still my favorite for the prize from the ones I have read so far. Except for the parts where it talks about the education of girl children in Gilead, there is not much in this book that adds to the feminist perspective. You learn that girls had little choice in their marriages and that they were married when still very young.

Atwood’s prose can be all over the place. Sometimes it is painfully unstimulating – almost all the chapters with that Canadian girl in it seem to be written by some amateur author writing YA-ish adventure, while at other times there are gems like these:

“Still, I wanted to believe; indeed I longed to; and, in the end, how much of belief comes from longing?”

Margaret Atwood

A sentence like that is worth a whole star in book rating for me. Of course, like with Coetzee and Orwell, most of her writing here comes in scenes of torture.:

“You wou’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person.” “Were there insects? Yes, there were insects. They did not bite me, so I expect they were cockroaches. I could feel their tiny feet tiptoeing across my face, tenderly, tentatively, as if my skin were thin ice. I did not slap them. After a while, you welcome any kind of touch.”

Margaret Atwood

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Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan

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