The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood pic
Canadian Writer, Margaret Atwood

Yes, this is a sequel to The HandMaid’s Tale (1985) but it is not a continuation of the story. The Testaments starts fifteen years after the story of Offred, the handmaid, and is a trio of narratives, the three (written) testaments: a young girl raised in Canada, a young girl raised in Gilead, and Aunt Lydia, the villainous trainer ‘Aunt’ in the original story; she is the only continuing character.

There was a 1990 movie of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Elizabeth McGovern, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and penned by Harold Pinter which was not a success (it only made 5 million back on its 13 million budget) but the television (streaming) version of the book which first aired in 2017 was a runaway success. Timing is everything, coming as it did in the wake of the #metoo movement.

I suspect it was the success of the television version that sparked Atwood, and/or her publishers, to embark on a ‘sequel’.

In a 2018 ad for Masterclass – an online teaching platform that Atwood signed up to teach creative writing – she says that all the bad things in The Handmaid’s Tale happened “in real life somewhere at some time … I didn’t make them up.” She also says that “as a writer, your goal is to keep your reader believing in your story even though both of you know it’s fiction.” I always knew The Testaments was fiction; I didn’t believe a word  of it.

There are three reasons why I think this is not a good book and the Booker Prize judges made a very big mistake.

  1. Fiction is made up of three components: narrative, description, and dialogue. The Testaments is all narrative. This happened, then that happened, then this happened, with dialogue peppered through the narrative like herbs sprinkled on a salad. You don’t learn much from the dialogue. There is very little description. I suspect Atwood believed the images, the ‘look’ of the story and characters from The Handmaid’s Tale, the TV version, would satisfy the reader’s need to ‘see’ it.
  2. So much of the detail of the times and life in Gilead are justified in the same sentence in which the detail is introduced. This is often necessary but it is a necessity that should only be used sparingly. Too much of it and it sounds lazy and clunky. We are told too much, when we should be shown. As a reader I had to ‘do’ virtually nothing. I fell asleep a lot.
  3. And what I believe to be the greatest sin: when the story is one of survival and escape from an evil or severe danger, which it is, we do not see the villains, the bad-guys – Commander Judd et al – get their comeuppance. It is a very unsatisfying read.

The Booker judges decided on a winner for 2019, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and why, of why, did they also announce Atwood’s book as a co-winner – it’s against the Booker rules, btw – when it is such an obviously commercial enterprise capitalising, not on the success of the 24-year-old original book but, on the 2017 TV version of that book? Maybe they thought the Booker needed the publicity. Atwood didn’t need a Booker; she already had one (for her 10th novel, The Blind Assassin, in 2000) where as Evaristo did, but then had it diminished by having to share it.  Both author’s were kind and sanguine about their joint prize as one would expect.

If you enjoyed all or either of the versions of The Handmaid’s Tale, book, film, or TV series, leave this one alone: it adds nothing.

However, you can buy various editions of The Testaments here.

 

Out in the Open by Jesús Carrasco

 

Jesus Carrasco pic
Spanish writer Jesús Carrasco

In the European summer of 1984 my partner and I were driving around Europe. One of our stop overs was the very un-tourist-town of Badajoz, on the Spanish Portuguese border. Western Spain is not dissimilar to the Australian interior, brown, dry and dusty. There were hot summer hazes on the bitumen, the look and dry odour of stubble and the sharp acrid smell of eucalyptus trees; but my childhood memories of the dry mid-north of South Australia in summer were debunked by the odd donkey cart, a stork perching on a power line, and olive groves. We stayed in Badajoz over night and saw our first bullfight in a red-brick Plaza de Toros, with an atmosphere not unlike an Aussie country footy match. There were food stalls, ice cream sellers, souvenir hawkers, and kids running around under the stands. One of those kids could’ve been 12-year-old Jesús Carrasco, born in Badajoz in 1972. Since school he has worked as a grape-picker, a washer-up, a music manager, an exhibition fitter, a graphic designer and an advertising copywriter, and somewhere during that time he achieved a Batchelor’s Degree in Physical Education. He began writing when he moved to Madrid in 1992 and now lives in Seville. Out in the Open (Intemperie in Spain) is his first novel and was a best seller in Spain and then the Netherlands in 2014.  It won the European Union Prize for Literature and also the English PEN Award and has been translated into 14 languages; this English translation for Vintage, UK is by Margaret Jull Costa.

It’s been called a ‘road’ story and a ‘dystopian’ tale, about a frightened boy who takes refuge in a hole in the ground and then escapes into a vast apocalyptic-like desert which has engulfed the land, his world. He is pursued by men of the village for an unknown reason, but the boy is obviously terrified and can do nothing but flee. He meets a lone goat-herd, an old man who lives on goat’s milk, dried meat, rancid almonds and mouldy cheese. A boy beginning his life and a man close to his end. They flee from the pack of men, and then a persistent bailiff and his deputy, and form a strange almost messiah-disciple-like alliance despite their mistrust of spoken words and their respective body odours : there’s not enough water to drink let alone to wash: anyway urine is better for wounds from fists, boots, backs of hands, and whips. Their only bond seems to be their shared branding as the ‘other’. No character has a name.

It’s written in a straight, past tense, third person narrative of plain language;

They crossed the stony ground at such a slow pace that they didn’t even kick up any dust. The landscape they passed through, full of abandoned arable fields and threshing floors, spoke to them of desolation. As did the flattened furrows covered in a crust of baked earth so hard that it only gave beneath the hooves of the heavily laden donkey.

Apart from the vivid writing the thing that urges you on is to find out why is the boy afraid, what terrible thing did he do? You are hungry for clues, your attention is sharpened. They are few but therefore precious. You hang on to them and you must resist letting your mind wonder around superfluous possibilities. The threat of violence is ever present, and when it comes, it is alarmingly real. Don’t be squeamish!

Place and time are unimportant, it is as if the land is devoid of people, hopes, ambitions and work. There is just ruins, rocks, bones, and dust. The boy and man protect each other, the boy certainly not really understanding why. There is a mule, a dog and a few goats: a small band of survivors? Outlaws? Refugees? If only it would rain! It is a story of self-reliance, determination, courage, acceptance, hope, and, and triumph? You will have to read it to find out.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.