The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, is the highly anticipated follow up novel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Published in September 2019, it was shortlisted for and subsequently became a co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.
The Handmaid’s Tale, itself much awarded, has now been transformed into an opera, a television series (4 seasons and counting), and an earlier film version starring Faye Dunaway and Natasha Richardson. A graphic novel version was also published in early 2019; it was previously reviewed by Myra here.
I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale just before diving into The Testaments, so the story was fresh in my mind as I began. The Testaments is essentially a sequel, picking up the action fifteen years after the cliffhanger at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.
While The Handmaid’s Tale is told through the narration of one character, The Testaments tells us the story of three characters, gradually revealed in the form of a diary and witness statements. Apart from some very obvious reveals as to the identity or roles of each of the three main characters, the plot in The Testaments moves along grippingly. It uses flashbacks as a device to give the reader more details about how Gilead came to be, as well as the role of the Aunts in Gilead society. We also learn about a new role for women, the “Pearl Girls”, who ostensibly fulfil a role similar to Mormon missionaries, but with a twist.
As much as I enjoyed this continuation of the story from The Handmaid’s Tale, especially having just revisited the earlier novel, the question that was running through my mind while I was reading The Testaments was “what is it that makes this book Booker Prize worthy?”
After all, the ground-breaking story concept is laid out in The Handmaid’s Tale, while The Testaments fleshes out more details and brings us to a satisfactory ending, all eminently readable and un-put-down-able, but in my mind, no longer ground-breaking.
Perhaps the Booker Prize judges were taking into consideration the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted but did not win in 1986. Their selection of two co-winners in 2019 was itself controversial, as the judges decision to split the award went against the rules of the Prize.
I will have to read the other co-winner Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo next!