The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. Book report #21 (2019)

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. Pub 2019

At long last for everyone, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m glad I chose to read this while away, and I had not spoiled it at all by reading up on social media (although I might now).

I wanted to love this. Perhaps after time and attention, perhaps being inured to the state of the world then-and-now, this new novel did not bring the same shock-and-awe of Handmaid.

The format was interesting – the testaments of three residents of the time and place at the end of Gilead empire, giving various perspectives: the outsider, the inside power broker, the inside innocent. This allowed the story to move forward and back, using the different voices to convey both information and feeling. Unfortunately, none of these narrators was especially sympathetic, especially the outsider; her conversion from petulant, immature teenager to trusted covert operative was pretty far-fetched. Also, because these were presented as written testaments, recorded mostly well after events had occurred, there was some level of mistrust of the narrators.

The inner workings and machinations of Gilead power and administration were less interesting, mostly because they seem sadly familiar anyone working within government. The political favours, the who-you-know climbing of the ladder, the denouncements – while despicable, it would have been more surprising to learn that Gilead was a meritocracy.

While Gilead is geographically located in the US, its initiation and structure are closer to a religious totalitarian state, such as under the Taliban, than anything close to any Western society. This also makes the story less a believable dystopia and more a thinly-veiled political commentary on North American politics (with the odd dash of climate change added for currency).

I also found the ending was rushed, the final escape highly unrealistic, and the happy ending actually a disappointment. As the climax approaches, the characters behave erratically: those who are known for their careful planning start making rash decisions on the advice of people they would never have listened to previously. The sudden violence and rapid escape of the heroines is the most unbelievable – in an environment as controlled as Gilead, the entire exodus is more than implausible. Most unbelievable: based on the characters and story, this entire upheaval of the US, including the establishment of a new religion, government, and social hierarchy, and its demise takes place in less than 20 years.

While I enjoyed this book (who cannot enjoy Atwood’s delicious language and artful descriptions), I felt it was rushed and a bit sloppy (example: there is reference to a pearl pin that one of the many ranks of women have to wear, described as being in the shape of the new moon; a new moon is not visible, so either this pin is not visible, or what was meant was a full or crescent moon). I am glad I read it, but mostly I wish Atwood had left well enough alone.

7- a book by a female author

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