On September 10, award winning novelist Margaret Atwood released her highly anticipated sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale (1985), the Testaments. The new novel takes place 15 years after narrator Offred’s storyline in the first book. The fictional Republic of Gilead still reigns but shows signs of corruption and failure. Unlike the Handmaid’s Tale, the Testaments focuses on the testimonies of three women: the notorious Aunt Lydia from the previous book, a young Gilead woman named Agnus, and a young Canadian woman named Daisy.
The novel succeeds Atwood’s famous 1985 book the Handmaid’s Tale, whose popularity has boomed in the past few years with the creation of a Hulu series based on the book. The series draws from the same dystopian idea of Gilead, Handmaids, and uses many characters that Atwood created, but with the show’s own spin on them. It’s not surprising that the novel has received so much attention in recent years, as it heavily resonates with many feminists due to its dystopian focus on women’s rights (or lack thereof). With the recent political climate, some have drawn parallels between events and fictional ideas in Atwood’s book and reality. Just two years ago at the Women’s March, protesters carried signs with slogans like, “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again!” and “‘The Handmaid’s Tale’s not an instruction manual!”
The TV adaptation of the novel had been in the works before the election, but after the election, it gained a new gravity. “It’s not that anything in the script changed. But the frame changed, so that people were going to see it differently,” Atwood commented in an interview onstage at the Women in the World Summit in 2018.
Because of its rise in popularity, Atwood decided to create a sequel and bring The Handmaid’s Tale’s iconic story to a dramatic conclusion. When Atwood announced that she was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, back in November of last year, she said that it was inspired by “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings.”
Before it was released, The Testaments caught media headlines due to Amazon accidentally shipping hundreds of books out a week before planned. This sparked the discussion on Amazon’s reign over the book marketplace. If an independent bookstore had violated the embargo they would likely have been punished with delayed shipments of major future releases, while Amazon will likely face fewer serious consequences due to its size and power.
Despite the technical mistake, many readers were delighted to finally get their hands on Atwood’s new work this September. Reviews suggest it is well worth the wait, despite having a lot to live up to. The Independent, who gave it four stars, said “it can and does satisfy our hunger for more. It is an addictively readable, fast-paced adventure about the collapse of Gilead.”
Others were disappointed by it, including The Arts Desk, who not only claimed “Most of it reads like a bad YA fiction,” but also that it “lacks the slow, fine claustrophobia of The Handmaid’s Tale. The writing is rushed, with clichés patching the gaps to get us from one moment of reaction to another.”
So if you expect intricately crafted, subtly plotted, lyrically written prose, or a completely new twist on the whole Gilead saga, this novel will probably disappoint you. But if you want to read a straightforward, intelligent, well-paced, witty thriller with social commentary in which women take down the patriarchy, this is likely the book for you.