As I read “The Testaments,” Margaret Atwood’s latest Booker Prize-nominated novel, I was reminded of a case study of Darwin’s finches I learned about in an anthropology class I took last year. Throughout the 1970s, biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant observed the finch population of the Galápogos Islands. As a result of a severe drought that radically changed the food supply available to the finches, natural selection worked to alter the makeup of the population in response to the demands of this new environment, resulting in the production of a completely different species of bird. The Grants disproved Darwin’s belief that evolution needed hundreds or thousands of years to significantly change a population — in some cases, it only needs a few years to create astounding change.
When it comes to Atwood’s “The Testaments,” it’s arguable that things line up with the Grants’s story quite well — only the novel’s characters are the finches, and Gilead is the drought. In “The Testaments,” we learn that Gilead, the apocalyptic and theocratic dystopia of Atwood’s modern classic “The Handmaid’s Tale,” has continued its reign of terror well after the events of the latter novel. However, while “The Handmaid’s Tale” chronicled the very first years of Gilead, readers of “The Testaments” get to witness what has become of this regime — how it has evolved in its cruelty and, more poignantly, how the women who have grown up inside it hardly even resemble the women who lived before them just decades ago. The young girls who have grown up inside Gilead might as well be a different species — feminism is a foreign concept to them, heinous crimes like murder and sexual assault are everyday occurrences and they don’t even know how to read.
Just as Darwin’s finches were products of a drought that reshaped their environment, the women of “The Testaments” are products of Gilead and its culture of hate and shame and oppression. The prospect of centuries upon centuries of human advancement crumbling within just a few decades is genuinely terrifying and truly fascinating to read about, and Atwood’s talent for visualizing this creatively is without a doubt the novel’s greatest asset.
The haunting and frightening world of Gilead introduced in “The Handmaid’s Tale” has made its mark on our culture, spawning its own Emmy-winning Hulu adaptation. There are many reasons why “The Handmaid’s Tale” has had the cultural impact it’s had — the parallels Atwood draws between her fictional Gilead and our own society’s internalized patriarchy are biting, deeply disturbing and impossible to forget. Aside from any political and social resonance the book might have, though, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is simply a great work of literature, a beautifully written and fully realized account of one woman’s journey as she’s forced to go through a living hell.
Given all of this, it’s clear that “The Testaments” has a lot to live up to. You could say that the book should be read as its own entity, independent from its predecessor, but I don’t think this is what Atwood wants from her readers at all — she refers back to “The Handmaid’s Tale” constantly. And although “The Testaments” is written from the perspective of a different narrator (three narrators, in fact), all three of the women it gives voice to are intricately and permanently bonded to Offred, and this bond is a central catalyst for the decisions they end up making.
So, I’m going to compare “The Testaments” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I think I have to. And, as I contemplate their differences, I’m more and more aware of the inferiority of “The Testaments” in nearly every respect. For one, its prose, in relation to “The Handmaid’s Tale” at least, is unrefined and often unconvincing. One narrator in particular utters lines so unnatural, so cringeworthy I could hardly stomach them (“I am fucking sorry, but we are in a hot mess emergency here!”). At certain points it reads like a young adult novel, which certainly isn’t detrimental in and of itself but feels completely out of place in the context of its predecessor.
Simply put, this kind of writing belongs nowhere near a Booker Prize, and it certainly wouldn’t be in the running for the award if it weren’t the brainchild of Margaret Atwood. A more glaring and upsetting criticism, though, and what may just be the book’s fatal flaw, is the superficial and stereotypical characterization of its narrators Atwood opts for. All three narrators are two-dimensional, archetypal embodiments of the cultures they come from, and there simply aren’t enough pages in this plot-heavy novel to flesh them out further. These women deserve more. They each deserve a novel of their own.
I don’t want to sound like I despise this book. I don’t in the slightest. “The Testaments” is an addictive read with an uplifting (albeit slightly unearned) resolution. I admire its ambition, its aspiration to give voice to as many women as possible. Most importantly, it doesn’t make me love “The Handmaid’s Tale” any less. Ultimately, though, if I do decide to return to Gilead, it won’t be by way of “The Testaments.”