The Testaments – an unworthy sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale ★★★

This week Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other shared the Booker Prize, the first time the prize has been shared in nearly 30 years. Following the success of The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite rise to the level of a proper sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, following as it does in the shadows of the earlier work’s legacy.

The Testaments relies solely on concepts already explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly the fictional Republic of Gilead’s dystopian theocratic government. Narrated by three key protagonists, the book opens with Agnes, an orphan adopted by a Gilead family who is preparing to fulfil her assumed role as a Gilead wife for an old, rich Commander. The second is Daisy, an escaped child of Gilead who now lives in Toronto. The third is Aunt Lydia, a familiar face from The Handmaid’s Tale. She still manipulates and ruthlessly indoctrinates women into the Gilead regime, but Aunt Lydia has also grown more complex in Testaments, and reveals the underlying corruption and hypocrisy of the government.

Frustratingly, Testaments has not the impact of its predecessor. The terrifying brutality of the patriarchal hierarchy is tamed, lacking the forceful immediacy of The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia’s character offers little substance to the plot and her sincerity is unconvincing; Atwood tries and fails to inspire sympathy for a character that doesn’t deserve it.

The chapters narrated by 15-year-old Agnes and Daisy are unsophisticated and lack depth. Considering their age, it remains unclear whether this is intentional or a reflection of Atwood’s underwhelming writing. This is not to suggest that Atwood’s writing is always mediocre; The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and The Edible Woman prove otherwise. However, Atwood’s reluctance to address plot holes and write with the same level of refined coherence as The Handmaid’s Tale set The Testaments apart.

There is no denying Atwood’s unparalleled talent, but my dissatisfaction for The Testaments is too great to warrant praise. Atwood leaves greater scope to critique the regime’s totalitarianism and fails to enhance our understanding of Gilead’s inner workings.

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