Booker 2019: The Handmaid's Tale sequel The Testaments is a thrilling tour de force

Margaret Atwood's The Testaments is far more conclusively hopeful than its ambiguous predecessor.
Margaret Atwood's The Testaments is far more conclusively hopeful than its ambiguous predecessor.PHOTOS: LIAM SHARP, AP

FICTION

THE TESTAMENTS

By Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus/Hardcover/419 pages/$43.32/Major bookstores

4.5 stars


"History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes," observes a character in The Testaments, the long-awaited sequel to Atwood's seminal 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale.

The grande dame of feminist dystopia does not repeat herself here, but has produced a tour de force that, while fresh, provides a deft counterpoint to its predecessor.

The testaments of the title are by three women. One, Agnes Jemima, is a girl growing up in the totalitarian Republic of Gilead; another, Daisy, was raised across the border in Canada by liberal parents, but is connected to Gilead in ways she is unaware of.

The third narrator is a familiar face: Aunt Lydia, the terrifying administrator of the subjugation of Gilead's women, including the system of the Handmaids, which forces fertile women to bear children for the elite through ritualised rape.

In The Handmaid's Tale, narrator Offred saw Aunt Lydia largely as a villain.

Here, Atwood expands Aunt Lydia into a fascinatingly complex character, giving her a background as a family court judge, the kind of single, educated older woman who had everything to lose when Gilead arose.

She is recast as a survivor, albeit one who has survived through monstrous complicity and the ruthless sacrifice of others. "I am a great proponent of better," she thinks. "In the absence of best. Which is how we live now."

The paths of these women converge in an irresistibly propulsive plot that reads at times like one of John Le Carre's espionage thrillers - there is a spy in Gilead - and is nigh impossible to put down.

 
 
 
 

Atwood, 79, is a six-time finalist for the Booker - she won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin - and her trademark wordplay is in fine form from the opening lines: "Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified."

As the author herself has noted, the scenario of The Handmaid's Tale has become even more disturbingly resonant in the present than when the book was first published.

In contrast, The Testaments is far more conclusively hopeful than its ambiguous predecessor.

It might seem pat, but perhaps that is what is urgently needed now: an ode to resistance, a handing of the baton from an older generation to a younger one. And above all, a testament to the power of women who write.

If you like this, read: The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin, 2016, $22.42, Books Kinokuniya), in which women around the world discover they have the power to deliver electric shocks, completely upending society's gender roles.

• A version of this review was first published on Sept 10.