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. She is spilling her secrets. Knowledge is power, especially disreputable knowledge, though writing things down is dangerous. Who knows what betrayal and denunciations lie in store?
As well as bearing witness, Aunt Lydia is defending a life, she tells herself, that she has had no choice but to lead. Once, before Gilead, she was a family court judge who contributed to charity, voted, and held worthy opinions: “I’d assumed I was living virtuously; I’d assumed my virtue would be moderately applauded. Though I realised how wrong I was about this on the day I was arrested.”
There is no point, Aunt Lydia thinks, in having regrets. Yes, she should have packed up and left earlier. She saw things were on a downward spiral in that vanished country that existed before Gilead. She knew about the floods, the fires, the earthquakes, the decaying infrastructure, the search for someone to blame: “People became frightened. Then they became angry.” Why did she think it would be business as usual? “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” On the day of her arrest, she is taken to a stadium that has become a prison. She witnesses multiple executions. She is put in the Thank Tank, a repurposed police-station isolation cell. “You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people.”
She loses track of the days. Three times she is beaten. When she is released, she is given an escape route. The new regime intends to liberate women from the chaos of excessive choice and restore them to their natural functions. Will she co-operate? She puts on the brown robe that is almost but not quite a cowl and the legend of Aunt Lydia is born. Her photograph will hang on the wall of the schools where girls are taught the womanly arts of cookery and needlepoint. She has chosen to wield a Taser rather than be on the receiving end of it.
Woven between the chapters of Aunt Lydia’s testimony are the transcripts of Witness Testimony 369A and 369B. Witness 369A is called Agnes: “You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me growing up in Gilead. You say it will be helpful… I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind but fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.” Agnes’s father is a Commander and she is destined to be the wife of an important man. She wears pink in spring and summer, plum for autumn, and white for special days. Her arms and hair are covered and skirts have to be no more than two inches above the ankle. Agnes is sent off to Premarital Preparatory classes to learn how to be a high-ranking wife.
Witness 369B, Daisy, says she doesn’t know how to start explaining how she got involved. The people she thought of as her parents were murdered on what she thought was her 16th birthday. Much of what she knows about herself turns out not to be true and she discovers she is “a forgery done on purpose.” Daisy is catapulted into the resistance movement and finds out she has a crucial role to play. As the three stories intertwine, we learn what connects them to each other as the tension mounts. Will Aunt Lydia be found out? Will Agnes be forced into marriage? Will Daisy become an effective undercover agent? And can these women work together to end a brutal regime?
There has been a great hoopla over the publication of The Testaments. The book was under strict embargo, which was accidentally broken by Amazon and there were reports that hackers tried to steal the manuscript. Only a tiny handful of books merit all the secrecy and security and the midnight openings of bookshops. It’s great for the book industry when reader demand is so high that people will both dress up as the characters and queue up to spend their money. The danger, of course, is that the hype is not justified. But that is not the case here.
If I had a fear, it was that there might be too much gloomy polemic or heavy-handed comparisons with politics in the Trump age. I needn’t have worried. Atwood has been putting story first for her entire career, and this is no exception. The novel The Testaments most reminds me of is not The Handmaid’s Tale but The Blind Assassin, which won Atwood the Booker Prize in 2000. (The new book is currently the favourite for this year’s prize.) For much of that book the reader is not sure exactly what they are reading and why, and there is a tonal similarity here in the way Atwood presents her three voices. It’s also surprisingly funny in places with the occasional laugh out loud on offer as the two witnesses come together and Agnes’s prim, God fearing ways are nicely contrasted with Daisy’s sweary speech patterns.
At the end of The Testaments, we are pinged out of Gilead into the future. It is 2197 and the documents we have been reading are being discussed at the Thirteenth Symposium on Gileadean Studies. Professor Crescent Moon introduces Professor Pieixoto, who reminds his audience of the excitement of a few years earlier when they discovered tapes attributed to the handmaid Offred. Now there have been other “spectacular finds.” Is Aunt Lydia’s manuscript genuine? The carbon dating supports authenticity, though it is all made tricky by the Digital Black Hole of the 21st century, the sabotage of server farms and libraries and the populist revolts against repressive digital surveillance. Could it be an attempt to frame Aunt Lydia, perhaps, to implicate her, in the same way that Mary Queen of Scots was brought down by the casket letters?
This is all great fun and Atwood is at her playful best, speaking through her rather pompous professor to illuminate the nature of both history and storytelling with acuity and wit. This framing device also gives a hopeful upswing to the narrative, reminding us that repressive regimes come to an end and that testimony matters. First-hand narratives from Gilead are rare, especially about the lives of women, Professor Pieixoto explains, because, “it is hard for those deprived of literacy to leave such records.” Professor Crescent Moon says: “we must continue to remind ourselves of the wrong turnings taken in the past so that we do not repeat them.”
Atwood credits her readers for stimulating her to write The Testaments. Followers of the hugely popular television adaptation, now in its third series, wanted to know Atwood’s own take on what happened after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale—we are left uncertain as to whether Offred is being kidnapped or rescued—and also how Gilead fell. This story provides an engrossing and entertaining answer to those conundrums, though the deeper question at play here is the one about how Aunt Lydia becomes Aunt Lydia, and what that tells us about the “universal thirst for power.” Why and how do people end up on the right side of a dictatorship and, we must hope, on the wrong side of history?
It is quite an achievement to take the villain from one book and turn her into the heroine of its sequel; but who better to illuminate the corruption of Gilead as it reaches its “dog eat dog maturity” than one who has been at its heart from the beginning? Such is Aunt Lydia’s narrative charm, she could teach a thing or two to other important people who write books justifying their shoddy behaviour. Perhaps because of her direct addresses to the reader, she is impossible to resist. And who could fail to forgive a woman who keeps a forbidden copy of Jane Eyre close by?
Back in Gilead, as Aunt Lydia decides she will determine her own end and take down others with her, she speculates on the nature of writing for an unknown and unknowable audience: “If you are reading, this manuscript at least will have survived. Though perhaps I’m fantasising: perhaps I will never have a reader. Perhaps I’ll only be talking to the wall, in more ways than one.” No fear of that for Aunt Lydia and the other witnesses. The Testaments is that elusive dream of a book—an erudite, accessible, highly readable adventure, that brims with ideas but never lets them get in the way of the story.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by Chatto & Windus (£20)