Sunday, 29 September 2019

Margaret Atwood on a perfect fall morning...

I finally got a chance to read the new Margaret Atwood book this week and I’m so excited to tell you about it!  I’ve got a steaming cup of chai tea and a bowl filled with the last of the local peaches on this delightfully cool day as I think about last week’s reading experience.
The Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that asks the question, “What would happen if the world were ruled by (certain) men?”  I had to qualify that, as I’m sure there are some men out there who would not force all women into servitude, even if it were allowed and strongly encouraged.  But let’s face it, it’s been proven time and again that people who are given supreme power over others will inevitably abuse it. Everyone knows what society is like in Gilead, whether from reading the book or watching the series, so I won’t spend any more time on that.  Instead I will focus on this new book, a novel that I think was brilliant in its own way. The Testaments takes us back to Gilead fifteen years after the closing of The Handmaid’s Tale, and offers a look at how the society has developed and changed.  It is told from three different points of view, the testaments of Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima and Daisy.  We know Aunt Lydia from the previous novel, but fifteen years later, she is the most powerful woman in Gilead, whispering straight into the ear of Commander Judd.  Agnes Jemima is a precious flower, a girl who, at thirteen, is destined to become the new wife of a powerful, and much older, man. And Daisy, at sixteen, is a sassy teen living in Toronto who will play a pivotal role in the Mayday operation to bring Gilead down.  I don’t want to give anything else away because the mystery surrounding these three characters and the ways their stories become intertwined is what makes this book a real page-turner. I hate to compare novels, but while Handmaid was introspective and character-driven, Testaments is more plot-driven.  Both showcase Atwood’s amazing use of language and her supreme skill at subverting it to create an eerily chilling atmosphere that is shockingly believable.  But in Testaments, Atwood manages to also offer readers a Gileadean political espionage thriller that kept me staying up late and getting up early to read “just a few more pages”.  My only complaint, if you can even call it that, is with the timing of the stories, but I think I need to read it again before I make any comments, as it was probably just me rushing through it that left me feeling as though it didn’t flow as well as it could have.  Against my better judgement, I read the reviews and they were not great. One reviewer said “...if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep.  The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation:  ‘Are there any questions?’ Those questions were better left unanswered” http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190906-book-review-the-testaments-by-margaret-atwood. I have to disagree with all of this.  In my opinion, she probably never wanted to write a sequel; it’s been 35 years since Handmaid was published, so if she really wanted to write a sequel, I’m sure she would have done so before now.  With the popularity of the series, it is likely that she felt extreme pressure to write this and answer the very questions she probably intentionally left for readers to ponder.  Like Handmaid, Testaments ends with notes from a Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in which she writes:  “It is gratifying to see such a large turnout. Who would have thought that Gilead Studies - neglected for so many decades - would have gained so greatly in popularity?  Those of us who have laboured in the dim and obscure corners of academe for so long are not used to the bewildering glare of the limelight” (p 408). I think this is a direct reference to the sudden and immense popularity of her earlier work.  She is a brilliant writer who can get away with weaving these types of jibes and comments into her narrative and have it flow perfectly - or jarringly - for the reader. The most memorable part of this book for me is when Aunt Lydia, describing how she became an Aunt, talks about her time in the Thank Tank, not so much what happened to her there, but the process leading up to and following her time there, as well as the phrase, “Thank Tank”.  Unlike the reviewer quoted above, I loved this book. As with a film adaptation of a favourite novel, the reader (or watcher) has to realize that this is a separate entity from the original and judge it on its own merit. I highly recommend this book, even if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, but you would at least have to have watched the series or be familiar with the setting.
That’s all for today.  Enjoy the fall weather before it gets muggy and rainy over the next few days!
Bye for now…
Julie

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