No pressure, Ms Atwood... When I first read The Handmaid's Tale in the early 1990s it was considered an important and powerful book and found on every feminist's bookshelf. The story of a society where women are reduced to either breeders, maids or passive wives was then brought to an even wider audience through the recent TV series, with some viewers drawing parallels between its central themes and real life events. So when it was announced that Margaret Atwood was to write a sequel, set fifteen years after the close of the first novel, the world of books was quick to declare it the literary event of the year. That's a tough task for an author, but this is Margaret Atwood and she has of course risen to the challenge.
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Listen: Sinead Crowley reviews The Testaments on Morning Ireland
From the very opening pages, this book feels different from the first. The Handmaid’s Tale was a work of literary science fiction, concentrating on one woman's story, with every event filtered, by necessity, through her eyes. The Testaments is painted on an expanded canvas and takes readers beyond the borders of Gilead as cracks in its oppressive regime begin to appear.
The story is told from three points of view. The first character is a Commander's child, growing up in Gilead in relative privilege while the second is a Canadian teenager whose family supports the Resistance. The third narrator, Aunt Lydia is a character from the first book, however this time she is revealed to be a much more nuanced character with a gripping backstory of her own.
Atwood is an expert at drip-feeding information, and throughout the book we learn of a war with Texas, a female railroad that helps women trying to escape Gilead and many other changes that show how the world of the Commanders is coming under pressure. The author's own take on current affairs is also very much in evidence, while the richness of the text can be found in the small details, the taste of an orange, the reaction of a smart young woman when she first encounters the printed word. At its heart, however, The Testaments is a political thriller with a fast-paced, at times explosive narrative.
Seasoned crime readers will see some of the twists coming but that doesn’t detract from an incredibly entertaining plot. And the book is FUNNY – Aunt Lydia, in particular, has a dry sense of humour that presumably helped her survive in Gilead and provides the reader with lighter moments as the story zips along. Meanwhile, a chase sequence towards the end unfolds with a speed and panache John Grisham or Lee Child would be proud of.
This is a far more hopeful book than the first, with the reader placed at the heart of the resistance and the action. For that reason, it’s possibly less thought-provoking than the original, and some readers might have expected a more literary work. It's incredibly entertaining however and it may well be that a political thriller with a hopeful ending is exactly what the world needs right now.