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The Testaments

Sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”

This book hardly needs an introduction. Everyone has been talking about Margaret Atwood since her prize-winning novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a television series and commenting at length about the extent to which the story mirrors current events today. The original novel ends rather abruptly, but with the TV series now renewed for a fourth season, it has gone far beyond the ambit of the original novel. So when Margaret Atwood announced that 34 years after the original novel she would be publishing a sequel, there was a huge amount of interest. The interest was compounded when she (somewhat controversially) was awarded the Booker Prize for the new novel jointly with author Bernadine Evaristo. I have a fraught relationship with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Some of her books like “Cat’s Eye” and “The Blind Assassin” I would name among my favourite novels of all time. Others, like “The Heart Goes Last” and “The Robber Bride” left me lukewarm. Buying this eBook left me feeling a bit apprehensive, but with tickets to see her speak in Canberra just next month, I knew I had to read her new book.

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“The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel set approximately 15 years after the events of her acclaimed novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There are three point of view characters: Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Lydia is an Aunt: a high-ranking woman governing and implementing laws about women in Gilead, the nation formerly known as the USA. Agnes is an adopted daughter of a Commander in Gilead who escapes an arranged marriage by agreeing to become a Supplicant: a future Aunt. Daisy, also an adopted daughter, lives in Canada. However when her parents are victims of a terrorist attack, Daisy learns her true identity and become essential to Mayday: an underground resistance movement.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” ended on a cliffhanger, and for those readers who were desperate to know what happens next, to Gilead as much as to Offred, this book certainly answers those questions. Atwood is at her strongest in Lydia’s flashbacks to her arrest when the government was overthrown and Gilead was first established. I felt like the scenes where successful, “immoral” women were detained inside the stadium were realistic, compelling and deeply disturbing. I also felt that Atwood was asking the reader an important question: can the means always justify the ends? The idea of Supplicants to be a interesting form of subversion.

However, this is a bit of a tricky book to review. In some ways, we are living in a time of sequels, prequels, retellings and reboots. There seems to be a chronic inability to leave things to the reader’s imagination. I’m not going to go into depth about a related pet peeve of mine: unnecessarily verbose fantasy novels, but it’s a similar problem. The books I’m enjoying the most right now are those that leave me wanting more. Apart from exploring what it means to be a Supplicant, I wasn’t sold on Agnes’ story and Daisy’s story, while certainly the most action-packed, seemed chaotic and the plan to infiltrate Gilead felt flimsy. Maybe ultimately it was a question of scale. In a classic fantasy or science fiction novel, I would happily suspend my disbelief that a nobody becomes a chosen hero who saves the day mostly through luck and timing. For a story that purports to be a realistic alternative future, it was hard to be convinced. Neither Agnes nor Daisy were particularly compelling characters, and I found myself mostly looking forward to Lydia’s chapters hoping for more flashbacks.

I haven’t read Evaristo’s novel, the other winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, but I am a little surprised that this was a joint winner. For fans of the TV series and original novel, this will fill in plenty of gaps and show old characters in new light. However, I think that “The Handmaid’s Tale’ was excellent as a standalone novel and while this sequel is fine, it was not necessary.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction, Science Fiction

Milkman

Man Booker Prize-winning novel 

Man Booker Prize winners always seem to be a bit of a mixed bag for me. Some I love, some not so much. I’ve read quite a few of them, and even tried to join in on the Man Booker 50 Challenge last year (with poor success). Of course, since last year, the prize is now known as the Booker Prize after a bit of a funding reshuffle. Anyway, this book won the 2018 Man Booker Prize and apart from being the first author from Northern Ireland to win the prestigious award, she has also been very frank about her financial situation following finishing her novel. It has a striking cover and after picking up a copy a while back from the National Library of Australia’s bookshop, I finally got around to reading it.

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“Milkman” by Anna Burns is a novel told by an unnamed narrator, in an unnamed town, in an unnamed country. The narrator, referred to variously as middle sister, daughter, sister-in-law and maybe-girlfriend, lives in a town with what is described as “political problems”. Rife with gossip, the people in the town are constantly examining each other for signs of who is a renouncer and who is an informer. The narrator tries to keep her head down, looking after her wee sisters, reading books, jogging through the park, meeting up with her maybe-boyfriend. However, when she is the one people are gossiping about and she starts to attract the attention of a man known only as Milkman, the narrator finds keeping her head down is not as easy as she thought.

This is a complex, intricate novel inspired by The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but universal to any political conflict. The book has a thoughtful, idiosyncratic style with the narrator carefully using pseudonyms and scrupulously describing concepts and events in abstract and often over-complicated ways. Burns is an intelligent writer who, through her unique storytelling, unpacks the tension of living through political instability as well issues specific to being a young woman. Although to the reader, the narrator doesn’t seem so unusual, her hobbies and behaviour are subject to intense scrutiny by her mother, her family and her community. Her seemingly innocuous hobbies of book-reading and jogging are judged by those around her, not so much because they themselves care, but because they are worried what everyone else will think. However, at the heart of the story is the way the narrator is followed by Milkman and his associates, and the way that everyone in the community assumes that it is her fault.

However, this is not an easy book to read. It took me a really long time to get through this book and the writing style, as unique as it is, it is at times very difficult to immerse yourself in. I think there was a point, maybe three quarters of the way through, where I finally clicked with the book. However, that is a long slog for a reader. As insightful and intelligent as this book is, you have to work really hard to get to the end of it, and I think that this would affect the accessibility of this book to a lot of people. 

A perceptive, original and highly intellectual book, that I think a lot of people might find a bit hard to get into.

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