Book review – “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week and the theme for January was one of the biggest books of the last decade. The book I chose was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a huge bestseller published in 2014, but Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, published just a few months ago, could easily go down as one of the books of the decade too. Being at the ‘literary’ rather than the ‘popular’ end of the market means it will not likely match the 20 million sales worldwide that Flynn’s novel enjoyed, but it was the most anticipated book I can remember in a very long while, its publication the most advertised, was immediately serialised on the BBC in the UK, won the Booker Prize (jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) and will definitely be dramatized at some point.

The Testaments imgIt is truly a groundbreaking novel, but curiously, in my view, less in its own right than as an extension, a continuation of, the work started with the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. What is also partly so extraordinary about The Testaments is how relevant its story remains over thirty years on from The Handmaid’s Tale. In spite of equality legislation, human rights legislation, more women in positions of power and authority, we still have world leaders able to express their misogyny openly and with impunity, and violence against women and girls seems as rife as ever. Atwood is Canadian, but her novel is a dystopian vision set in the United States, where, in the last year, we have seen the erosion of women’s reproductive and therefore health rights in some states and the substantial threat of more to come. This novel seems so urgent and necessary.

The Testaments is written from the perspectives of three women and is presented as an account of their experiences in what appears to be a declining Gilead. Atwood’s brilliant authorial technique of presenting the work as part of research seminars at the Symposium of Gileadian Studies (as she did with The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s story was gleaned from a series of tape recordings discovered in an old property) means that we have separate accounts from three individuals. The opening ‘testament’ is from Aunt Lydia, the monstrous matriarchal figure in charge of the handmaids, whom we know well from the earlier book. Her power is at its peak and we learn that she know has a statue at Ardua Hall, the training centre for Gilead’s aunts. We learn more about her early career as a judge and how she came to be recruited to the army of aunts and rose to the top.

The second ‘witness’ is Agnes, the ‘child’ of one of the leading Commanders in Gilead and his first wife, Tabitha. Agnes, of course, is not their full biological child; as we know from the earlier novel, the role of the handmaids was simply as a gestational vehicle to produce offspring for the higher orders in Gilead. Nevertheless, Agnes was loved by her adoptive mother Tabitha, until the latter died of cancer. Commander Kyle’s new wife is unhappy with the presence of her step-daughter and quickly arranges for her to be married off. Unhappy with the choices offered, however, Agnes asks to be admitted to Ardua Hall to train as an aunt. She goes there along with some of her schoolfriends.

The final witness is Daisy, a feisty sixteen year-old living in Canada. Her parents, Neil and Melanie, run a charity shop and they are all well aware of events in nearby Gilead, not least because they are taught at school about their near-neighbour, about refugees from that state, about the talismanic significance of ‘Baby Nicole’, the child smuggled out of Gilead many years earlier by a handmaid and whom the authorities desperately want to find, and they see daily the so-called ‘Pearl Girls’, Gileadian missionary women whose role is to recruit young women to their cause. When Daisy’s parents are brutally killed by a car-bomb, Gileadian terrorism is suspected and Daisy is taken into hiding. Daisy is told that she is in fact the missing Baby Nicole and is asked to enter Gilead undercover, as a prospective recruit, to connect with an outsider there and help undermine the state.

Thus the scene is set for a gripping tale. At first, I thought it could not possibly be as jaw-dropping, or the execution of literary intent as magnificent, as The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read in anticipation of the publication of The Testaments, but I’m happy to say it is, but in a very different way. If anything, I would say the plot is stronger.

Margaret Atwood
Photo from http://www.CurtisBrown.co.uk

Margaret Atwood is now 80 years old. After The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s, she has published classics in every decade – Alias Grace in 1996, The Blind Assassin in 2000 (my personal favourite), Oryx and Crake in 2003, Hag-Seed in 2016, to name but a few – will this woman ever peak?! I hope not.

Highly recommended, perhaps essential reading.

Booker shortlist book review – “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” by Elif Shafak

I posted last week about the events of my life over the last couple of months, the dominant event being the death of my mother in mid- September. So much has happened in that time and yet I have felt rather out of the loop, my attention having been on other things. It feels strange to be posting here again, to be writing my first book review in what feels like months – can you believe I have a few butterflies?!

Booker Prize 2019The Booker prize winner(s) were announced last week and for the first time in years, and against the explicit rules of the contest, the judges awarded the prize jointly to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. I have not read either book yet, though I am currently listening to The Testaments on the excellent BBC Sounds and enjoying it enormously, though it is extremely dark. There has been so much publicity around Atwood and The Testaments that I was wondering how on earth the Booker prize judges were going to be able to not award it to her! So, I think the judges probably made the right decision. By now, I would probably have worked my way through at least two thirds of the shortlist (I’ve never managed all six in the period between shortlist and winner), but, for obvious reasons, I have not read that much so far this year.

10 minutes, 38 seconds imgIt is somewhat and sadly ironic that I was reading Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World at the time of my mother’s death, a novel about a woman, Leila, an Istanbul prostitute known as Tequila Leila, who is brutally murdered in a back alley by street thugs. Rather than death being an instant occurrence, however, the author explores the idea of it as a transition from the world of the living to the ‘other’ (with a duration, for Leila, of ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds) during which time her whole life flashes before her. Leila’s life story is told through a series of recollections about her five closest friends, how and when she met them and what impact they have had on her life. We learn that Leila came from a relatively affluent family. Her father was anxious for heirs, but when his wife proved incapable of having any he took a second wife, Binnaz, a much younger woman from a lowly family, who gave birth to Leila. Binnaz was forced to give up the child to the first wife to bring up as if she were her own, whilst Binnaz, who never recovered mentally from the trauma of that event, was thereafter known to Leila as ‘Auntie’.

Leila was sexually abused by her uncle as a child, ran away to Istanbul at the age of sixteen and, somewhat inevitably, was lured into a world of prostitution where she suffered many abuses, including being disfigured by a lunatic client who threw acid at her. She eventually found love in her life, with D’Ali, but he was killed soon after they were married and she found herself back on the streets again, just to survive.

We learn about the five friends in her life, people who crossed her path and whom she helped in different ways, and who became her family after her parents disowned her. Through these stories we learn about Leila’s humanity and warmth, her openness and kindness. After Leila’s death, with no living relatives willing to claim her body, the city consigns her to the ‘Cemetery of the Companionless’. Her friends have no rights to bury her so they set about stealing her body from the graveyard. The second half of the book is an account of how and why they do this and how eventually they give Leila the resting place they feel she deserves.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish national presently exiled from her country where she feels that with her liberal politics and as a free speech and human rights activist she would be in danger from the ultra-conservative government. It is clear, however, that she feels the present ruling party does not reflect the true culture of Turks, and in particular the ancient and multi-cultural city of Istanbul. The book is peppered with political messages and layered with historical references, particularly the Armenian genocide of 1915, a passion of Shafak’s, and the main topic of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul.

I have been an admirer of Elif Shafak since I saw her speak at the Hay Festival last year; she is a woman of huge intellect and achievement, a true polymath. However, I struggled with The Bastard of Istanbul as I have also with this book – I just did not like either of them as much as I wanted to. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds… is a really novel and interesting concept but I just felt like it did not deliver on its promise.

When my mother was admitted to hospital and was clearly close to death, I wondered whether to abandon this book; I thought I might find it too upsetting a read in the circumstances. But I’m afraid the book just did not move me. The second half even felt slightly slapstick.

I will keep admiring Shafak and keep trying with her books. Maybe I’ll find something I love!

What has been your favourite read from this year’s Booker shortlist?

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