Top critical review
25 September 2019
I can sum it up simply: this book is not needed.
I hoped that wouldn't be the case. I really really hoped Atwood had something important to add to the world of Gilead with this book, but she honestly doesn't. If anything, The Testaments serves only to weaken the power of The Handmaid's Tale.
In the past, I have spoken highly of authors who are not afraid to "be evil" with their books. This may give the impression that they are doing something particularly nefarious, but, in fact, it’s not so much something they do, but everything they don’t. It’s an act of self-restraint to not say everything, to leave some things unanswered, some happy endings unexplored. That, I feel, is one of the greatest strengths of The Handmaid's Tale.
Because there is so much we don't know; can't know. Everything we experience comes from Offred's narrow world view. Everything Offred doesn't know-- we don't know. The ending, too, is famously ambiguous. And these are extremely powerful tools. What we don’t know is powerful. Ambiguity is powerful. Knowing when to finish is powerful. As Aunt Lydia notes herself in this very book:
Where there is emptiness, the mind will obligingly fill it up. Fear is always at hand to supply any vacancies, as is curiosity.
The Handmaid's Tale forces us to wonder, to imagine, to fear the worst and hope for the best. The Testaments not so much.
What this book does is remove the ambiguity. It provides answers to thirty-five year old mysteries that were best left unanswered. I am reminded somewhat comically of Jojo Moyes' inability to let go of her Me Before You characters, repeatedly opening up the story after leaving it on an emotional high. Not every "ooh, I wonder what the characters did next?" should be answered. Sometimes not knowing is so much more effective. And that's Moyes. I didn't expect Atwood to indulge in this sentimentality.
The Handmaid's Tale uses one limited perspective to make us think; The Testaments uses three perspectives and an epilogue in the future to colour in all the corners, leaving nothing to the imagination.
I gave this book three stars for Aunt Lydia's perspective. Without her contribution I am honestly not sure I would have pushed through the second half of the book. The rest of the book is told from the perspective of two teenage girls, one living in Canada and the other in Gilead, and the "twists" regarding them are so glaringly obvious that it is actually a bit embarrassing to read the scenes with the dramatic reveals (chapter cliffhanger obviously). The whole infiltration by the resistance thing was straight out of every other dime a dozen dystopia.
I had so hoped this was going to do something new and important. I hoped it was going to impart a new message, perhaps relevant to modern times. I hoped it was going to be smart and thought-provoking. I am disappointed.