30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Since then, it has maintained its reputation for its exploration of gender relations. And after the success of the Hulu television series based on the novel, Atwood has revisited Gilead to explore how it fell.
I don’t think it’s possible to talk about The Testaments without reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. But stylistically they’re actually quite different. Although both are told with a framing device that presents the stories as historical artifacts of a fleeting theocracy, their subject matter is opposed. The Handmaid’s Tale is an unsettling depiction of the powerless. The Testaments is a somewhat more clinical exploration of power.
Three women’s narratives form the basis for The Testaments: one born within Gilead, one born without, and one at the top of the female hierarchy who had been instrumental in Gilead’s creation. How these stories intersect is interesting and Atwood is at her best when examining how people respond to trauma. She’s much less good with the more overtly political elements.
I’m not going to examine the plot and characters further: Atwood’s marketing team worked to keep the story under wraps and clearly some people derive pleasure from the unexpected. I will however note a handful of my reservations.
Firstly, it is not clear to me why The Handmaid’s Tale benefits from a sequel. As I mentioned in my review linked above, Atwood’s world building in the book wasn’t strong. It worked best as a piece of commentary and further extending that world exposes some of its flaws. Secondly, the characterization of the character outside Gilead isn’t strong, and there are some plot points that don’t entirely mesh with what we know of the characters. Thirdly, although the book is eminently readable, I wasn’t blown away by the writing style. I didn’t think anything particularly innovative was happening here.
All of which makes me wonder what exactly The Testaments is doing on this shortlist. It is probably clear from my other reviews that I have been really impressed by this year’s shortlist. I think there are five really good books on it (spoiler alert: the further I get through Ducks, Newburyport, the more inclined I am to think it should win) and that’s an unusually high hit rate. The Testaments probably wouldn’t have looked out of place in another year, but against this competition it stands out. Particularly when something as strong as Lost Children Archive didn’t make the cut. And I doubt The Testaments’ presence on this list would affect its sales: if you’re anything like me, this was a guaranteed read no matter what prize committees said.
Maybe I buy too heavily into the idea that all else being equal, prizes should be looking to elevate less mainstream writers and if a book’s quality is comparable (or, regrettably, lower) than that found elsewhere, a writer’s reputation and marketability should, if anything, work against them. Probably I’m overthinking this. As with winners, I suspect shortlists represent the least objectionable selection that the judging panel could get behind. In that light, I can see the readability of The Testaments and its themes counting for a lot. I just don’t think it represents the best of this year in fiction.