Book review: The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood PIC: Lisa O'Connor/AP/Getty Images
Margaret Atwood PIC: Lisa O'Connor/AP/Getty Images
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In the afterword to this new novel, Margaret Atwood explains its genesis. “One question about The Handmaid’s Tale that came up repeatedly is: How did Gilead fall? The Testaments was written in response to this question.” As one might expect this sequel is fluent, imaginative and provocative. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, was ambiguous – at the end we do not know if Nick, Offred’s lover, is an agent for the Mayday Resistance against Gilead’s theocratic and misogynistic regime, or one of the “Eyes,” the secret police, the Stasi of the imagined state. It was further complicated by an epilogue by Professor Pieixoto, who supposedly discovered Offred’s tapes and casts some doubt on their validity. To make things more complicated, the original has become a very successful television series (now outstripping George RR Martin in terms of producers producing plots the author has not yet written). In this new novel, with a title resonant of Biblical themes, Atwood gives us the how of the downfall of Gilead, but not a scene-by-scene set of pitched battles.

Tonally, it seems from a different era in many ways. The Handmaid’s Tale was sly and subversive. It demanded to be taken seriously. The Testaments is lighter; often relying on rather weak jokes. One major female character uses the awful pun that the bullying male suffers from “Pen is Envy”. There is a consistent use of saw-phrases and old rhymes, which I assume is to clarify the stultified state of Gilead, where women are not allowed to read or write unless they are the childless Aunts who organise the unpaid prostitution of the Maids and the service class of the Marthas.

The novel moves between three women connected with Gilead. One is a devout young woman, Agnes Jemima, whose fear of sex – instilled, in some ways, by the Aunts – leads her to try to get to the nunnery of celibate Aunts, Ardua Hall. Her double and opposite is a young woman called Daisy, who turns out not to be called Daisy, and who has grown up in Canada, and who will have to infiltrate Gilead. Over all is Aunt Lydia, from the original, who is secretly filing her autobiography into a copy of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (an apology for my life: not the only irony in the book). These plotlines converge in a way which is almost Victorian. Without giving away parts of the plot, everything eventually connects to everything else and there is even a wink about the fact that Offred is not in the sequel to the story of Offred, albeit from the unreliable Pieixoto, making a not-so-surprising return.

The highlight of the book is the memoirs of Aunt Lydia. They deal with torture, moral compromise and how to resist a totalitarian regime, and they do so with sensitivity. The plot which is focused on the younger characters is less believable. It seems written with an eye to the Occupy Movement, and #MeToo: what brings down regimes of terror is plucky young women, tattooed go-betweens and secretly resentful wise old owls. It is too much of its time. “Yuck won’t change the world. You need to get your hands dirty. Add some guts and grit,” one character (male) says to a female character. We’ve seen where getting your hands dirty gets you, and it’s not a pleasant prospect in reality. You cannot read the book without seeing it as allegory, although a smirking one, with lines like “Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than have them hurled at you.” The genius of Aunt Lydia is in creating a morally complex character; by contrast, the ghastly Commander Judd, one of the founders of Gilead, is just a baddie, with a wicked heart and a rotten soul. There is no attempt to ask why this man became what he has become. He is there purely as a lecherous hypocrite. Evil is usually more complex than that.

Although Gilead was the name of a place, it was also the name of a man. “Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah” – Judges 11:1 since you are asking, and Jephthah goes on the sacrifice his daughter; a good metaphor for Atwood’s dystopia. She also uses Judges 19-21, which is probably the most horrific passage in the Old Testament, combining rape, dismemberment and a council of leaders deciding to allow the abduction and rape of their daughters. (It’s not usually in the lectionary).

What, really, to make of this novel? Atwood is undoubtedly clever, and knows how to turn a sentence and keep the reader sprightly over the plot. It will no doubt appeal to those who have never read her other works (Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin and Hag-Seed are far better). But as I read it, I was reminded of a different Gilead entirely; Marilynne Robinson’s book with that title. It tried to explain how to be good in a world gone wrong; but Atwood’s sequel shows merely how to be angry at the world as it is. Stuart Kelly

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, Chatto & Windus, £20