The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.

71x4baXyxvLThe book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.

Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.

But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.

What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.

Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.

And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.

I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!

28 thoughts on “The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

    1. I’ll check out your review, Jeanne. I do think that a book can be both, but I just didn’t feel that this one was – po-tay-to, po-tah-to I guess! I also did not see this as a satire. But you’re right, I don’t read a lot of satire (the only one that comes to mind for me was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) so perhaps I’m just not used to picking up those clues. Oh well. I still enjoyed it and would recommend it.

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  1. I was immersed in and entertained by this one too 🙂 It’s the first novel I’ve read in years and it was really fun, actually, despite the darkness of some of the subject matter. I really preferred Lydia’s chapters, there was a bit much of a YA feeling to the younger girls’ stories, I felt. I agree with you, it’s not one worthy of big literary prizes, but still. She’s such a gifted writer that it’s really enjoyable to read anything she’s written!

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  2. I love a plot-driven book, and I don’t think it’s incompatible with literariness — but I’m still not going to read this one. Can’t face it! I’m glad that I read Handmaid’s Tale when I was a young bright-eyed optimistic youth, because in my cynical old age there’s just no way I could plow my way through it.

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  3. I thoroughly enjoyed The Testaments, but I didn’t think it deserving of the Booker, as it’s not as literary as winning novels tend to be. I recently read Hag-Seed for #MARM and again was impressed with Atwood’s storytelling ability.

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  4. I like Atwood’s earlier books best, too. (Robber Bride and Blind Assassin are my favorites.) But, as Ali mentions, Hag-seed is utterly brilliant. One of her best in years and years. I enjoyed this, too, although not as much as her earlier works, and, like you, I went in with no particular expectations as to whether I would like it or not. I did think Lydia’s characterization brought up a lot of great questions.

    I feel like the Booker prize win (and before that, the nomination) has caused a lot of people to come at this asking not whether it’s good, but whether it’s good enough for the Booker. I’ve come to care a lot more about my own experience with a book than whether it stands up to someone else’s standards. I can understand why others wouldn’t enjoy this, but I found it pretty gripping and I was glad to read it.

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    1. Insightful comments, Teresa, thanks. This Booker win seems to be very problematic for this book. People seem to have really strong feelings about it (the win.) Mostly negative, from what I’ve heard. I also care more about my own personal experience with a book than it’s reputation or awards. It seems to be a polarizing read but I’m glad I read it too.

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  5. I haven’t read much Atwood and to be honest haven’t been blown away by the little I have – maybe just bad choices. But it does annoy me when books like this get the big prizes since the authors certainly don’t need the publicity or the money. And it’s even worse when the consensus seems to be that this one doesn’t really deserve it on merit.

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      1. I’m sure I read Alias Grace when it came out and enjoyed it though my memory of it is vague now. Since then I think I’ve only read short stories, either individually or in collections, and although I’ve admired them I haven’t loved them. I shall try one of her books one day… thanks for the recs! 😀

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  6. A great excuse to eat cake!!! You’re right, I was a bit surprised it won the booker, because it is a very plot-driven book, although I think it’s been made clear by now that she won the award because of her overall career in books, not this one alone (which is not really what the prize is about, but whatever). Aunt Lydia is a fascinating memorable character isn’t she?

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  7. This was such a page turner! I loved it. It almost felt like Rocky when “Daisy” was training to go back into Gilead – which I think would have seemed a bit over the top if not for the nostalgic aspect of this being a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, if that makes any sense. But overall, I was left with a feeling of triumph. No matter how bad it seems, we can overcome tyrannical rule. What a great message for the US right now. (sorry to turn political)

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    1. This book is meant to be political, so it’s okay! 🙂 It did leave me feeling hopeful and it was neat to see the behind the scenes info about Gilead, the cracks in the armor, etc. I did think the ending perhaps wrapped up a bit too neatly but I was okay with that!

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  8. Almost 80 — wow. I was watching the Sunday news, which feature La Carre, an author whose name I see a lot in the library, but don’t know anything about him. Turns out he is 88 and still writing. He says he has another book in him! I can barely write a short story these days at 34. Yeesh.

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  9. It’s interesting to read all the comments! I’m thinking that the fact this won the Booker might have actually hurt people’s reaction/enjoyment of the book. It’s not usually a good idea to go into a book with such high expectations… Even though we all do it anyway. 🙂

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  10. I think the artistry in this novel is best observed when one is reading the two novels as companions. With THT fresh in one’s mind. There are a lot of details which correspond and play off one another, which I think is quite an amazing feat when one considers how many years have passed between the two writing periods in her life (and that in the first instance she was in her 40s and, now, was in her later 70s). But I do understand why more people are reading for story. It’s quite a page-turner! And I agree with Naomi’s assertion that media coverage of the Booker win has changed readers’ expectations, along with the usual age-related urge to dismiss an accomplished woman. When I hear too much about a book, that definitely plays in to how I respond to it, and with a book like this, I really don’t want to wait to read it until all the discussion dies down! Thanks for reading along for #MARM – I was sure I’d replied to this already but must have lost track of it somehow.

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