Review 1422: #MARM Margaret Atwood Reading Month—The Testaments

I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to read The Testaments. I had heard conflicting opinions. More importantly, I felt that The Handmaid’s Tale was just about a perfect book that didn’t need a sequel. The Testaments ended up co-winning the Booker Prize, though, so I had to read it for my project, and I also decided to read it in time for Margaret Atwood Reading Month.

The novel is narrated in documents: testimonies, a hologram hidden in a library, and finally the text of a lecture. The major narrators are Aunt Lydia, one of the founders of Gilead; Agnes, a girl raised in Gilead; and a younger girl named Daisy raised in Canada.

Aunt Lydia is busy recording a secret document telling tales of corruption by the leaders of Gilead. Her narrative takes us back to the founding of Gilead, when she, a judge, and all the professional working women were rounded up and “tested” for their ability to move forward. Agnes tells about how her protected childhood was destroyed by the death of her mother, the discovery that her actual mother was a handmaid, and the advent of her stepmother. At 13, she is to be forced into a marriage with Commander Judd, a much older man who has had many young wives who have all died. Daisy begins to find out secrets about herself after her parents are killed in an explosion.

So, what did I think of this novel? Well, Atwood always knows how to capture and keep her readers’ attentions. The book is fast moving and well written and should make many of the television program’s followers happy, which is its purpose. Did I change my mind about a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? Not really, especially since it does its job in a way that is so often predictable. I also felt that the final chapter was very weak. Atwood has tied everything up nicely, but sometimes I prefer ambiguity. So, a mixed review from me, even though overall it was a good book.

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Day Thirteen: The Handmaid’s Tale

Cover for The Handmaid's TaleWhen I first read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale back in the 80s, I believe my reaction was that the Canadian author might be over-reacting to the rise in American religious fundamentalism, although that also made it fairly scary reading. Not only does the novel translate well into this century, it is even more effective and foreboding in a time when hard-won civil and reproductive rights are being abrogated, education is being dumbed down and tampered with (as we know who have to fight the “intelligent design” battle every two years), and fundamentalism of all kinds is on the rise. Everyone should read or re-read this book.

Atwood presents the story skillfully. It is from the point of view of one person, the handmaid, as she struggles with her everyday life but remembers her previous one–one that we would consider normal. Instead of explaining what happened, she muses about her life as her thoughts come to her and as things happen, so it takes us awhile to understand what is going on. More than 20 years later, I still remember my horror when I realized the handmaid’s function in this dystopian society.

All we understand at first is that the handmaid lives in a rigid, stratified society in what used to be the U.S. in the not-too-distant future. It is a time of war, and there are terrifying checkpoints everywhere. All women are forced to wear uniforms in specific colors that indicate their station and function, and hers is red. She is treated as an outcast, and almost her every action is supervised. It takes us awhile to figure out that she lives in a theocracy, the laws of which were made as an apparent backlash against the successes in the late 19th century of women’s rights. In a foreword to the version I read, Atwood says that she purposefully didn’t include anything in the book that people have not already done to each other, which makes a statement in itself.

The novel is beautifully written. Although education for women is against the law, the handmaid was educated in her previous life, and constantly plays with language as she muses.

Read in the current climate, some of the themes and statements in this book will send a chill down your spine.