- Title: The Testaments
- Author: Margaret Atwood
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
- Pages: 419
Some years after the disappearance of Offred, the reproductive slave in the puritan theocracy of Gilead, whose found manuscript formed The Handmaid’s Tale, Gilead is falling apart. It is waging continuous war with surrounding states such as Texas and California – states that resisted or seceded from Gilead’s takeover of the United States – and rations are sparse. The environment is a disaster, and female fertility is still a rare gift. The Commanders, who administer it all, and the Aunts, who run the strictly segregated lives of women, are at each other’s throats, corrupt, betraying and denouncing each other.
This is the much-awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, whose fan base has only increased with the release of its big-budget television adaptation in 2017. Three narratives are presented in The Testaments, all told by women who live entirely in the world of women: a young Gileadean girl brought up in the cloistered privilege of a Commander’s household; an independent Canadian girl who knows little of Gilead except its creepy missionaries; and the most powerful Aunt in Gilead, Aunt Lydia, who was a villain in The Handmaid’s Tale and became a main character in the Hulu series. The two young women’s reports are written as witness testimony to some kind of inquiry; Aunt Lydia’s account is a secret diary that she stashed in the pages of a forbidden religious book (one by Cardinal Newman, himself a man of many conversions), and found years after her death. These documents are framed, as was The Handmaid’s Tale, by an academic discussion of them at a conference many years after the fall of Gilead. It is significant that once again the academic presenting this history is male – indeed it is the same casually sexist professor who discovered Offred’s tale.
Like Alice Munro, Atwood is an unsentimental observer of the rituals and exclusions of all-female societies – and indeed Munro is referred to twice in this book, once by name, as a forbidden author, and again when a character casually refers to the “lives of girls and women.” These girls and teenagers in monastic captivity, forbidden to read, invent subversive and even gruesome anti-nursery rhymes, based on their prayers.
“Bless my overflowing cup/It flowed upon the floor/That’s because I threw it up/Now Lord I’m back for more.”
(This is so Munroian!)
The elderly Aunt Lydia’s confession has a surprise for us: her origin story, as it were. Before Gilead, she had been a judge. She was arrested during the fundamentalist revolution, tortured and forced to join the regime. After years of administering pain and oppression to women with an iron fist (actually she describes it as “an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten”), she has turned against her own regime, gathering detailed records of corruption and horror, and pitting her colleagues against each other in the most devious of ways. Atwood’s relish of complicated, calculated feminine betrayal – in the kind of character she has been creating since at least Zenia in The Robber Bride – is on full display here, and it is delightfully wicked.
Aunt Lydia may or may not be an agent of Mayday, the underground resistance that organizes the Femaleroad. (Canada is, of course, the destination of the smuggled slaves, just as it was during the U.S. slave trade of the 19th century.) But the question of who is a double agent and for whose side anyone is working criss-crosses the texts, making their fast-moving developments as engrossing as a Le Carré novel. Indeed, all the elements of a Cold War spy story are here: the suspicion that any one of these characters, on either side, might be the mole, the use of secret codes and information concealed in microdots (a technology all the characters agree is obsolete). There is just a hint of James Bond about some of this, particularly in the almost superhuman bravery and physical stamina of the Canadian girl, who is even given deadly martial arts training by the rebels, like la femme Nikita. (This cannon, rolled onstage in the second act, does indeed go off quite satisfactorily in the third.)
Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are going to be inevitable with a sequel, and so one cannot help but notice a difference in tone. Like much of Atwood’s recent dystopian fiction, the focus here is on action rather than on reflection. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was claustrophobic and discursive, the rather coldly intoned thoughts and memories of a woman imprisoned – a narrative with all the inflections of Atwood’s poetry, a long commentary on the underlying motives of contemporary misogyny – the new book reads more like a thriller with satirical elements (like, indeed, her previous novel The Heart Goes Last) and feels slightly less real as a result. A great deal of exposition is required to get readers up to speed on the political organization of the state, and so parts of all three narratives are written as historical summaries; this brings awareness of novelness rather than immersion in a tortured psyche.
Not that there is no poetry. Bibles, for example, forbidden to girls, “brood in the darkness of their locked boxes, glowing with an arcane energy.” Brooding, darkness, locked boxes – we are never far from these in Atwood.
There is always a dry humour in Atwood, and here the comic details, being part of a satire, are less subtle. The Aunts, for example, are allowed to choose new names when they become part of this administrative class, and so they choose names of vanished commercial products that may have once been “reassuring” to women – Aunt Maybelline, Aunt Ivory. This is funny but, well, broad.
In all this is a lighter book – an exciting rather than a depressing read, complete even with a surprisingly sentimental ending, that seems more wry and knowing than angry. It might even be called optimistic.
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