The Booker prize contender asks what it means to be on the losing side of historyby Cathy Rentzenbrink / October 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
“Over the years I’ve buried a lot of bones; now I’m inclined to dig them up again—if only for your edification my unknown reader.” So writes Aunt Lydia near the beginning of Margaret Atwood’s much anticipated sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. We are back in Gilead, where women are not allowed to own money or property, must dress and behave according to strict rules, can be stoned for losing their virginity outside of marriage and executed if they try to procure an abortion. The scenario is not as far-fetched as it might seem. As Atwood says in her acknowledgments to this new book, one of the axioms of The Handmaid’s Tale was that every event in the novel has a precedent in human history.
The Testaments picks up the story a few years later, with Aunt Lydia writing in secret. In a regime that offers few possibilities for women, she is powerful. The Aunts are in charge of training and subjugating other women. She has the ear of the Commanders and controls the women’s side of their operation with “an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten.” She is venerated and feared and has even been honoured with a statue. In it she stands, Taser at her belt.
Unlike the other women, the Aunts are allowed to read and write, but still Aunt Lydia knows she is transgressing as she writes her testimony within her private sanctum in the library at Ardua Hall. She is hidden deep within the Forbidden World Literature section, surrounded by her personal selection of proscribed books, including Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Ardua Hall has one of the few libraries that still exists in Gilead after enthusiastic book burnings: “The corrupt and blood-smeared fingerprints of the past must be wiped away to create a clean space for the morally pure generation that is surely about to arrive.” Are we imagining an edge of sarcasm in her tone? No. Aunt Lydia, we realise, is not an ardent advocate for the regime she appeared to uphold so vigorously in The Handmaid’s Tale.…