Atwood's 'grand book' an indictment of those who misuse religion
BookThe Testaments, by Margaret Atwood (Penguin, 2019)
By Marjorie Lewis-Jones
The Testaments is Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s much-anticipated follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale. It recently snagged the 2019 Booker Prize alongside Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Girl, Woman, Other, which explores the lives of 12 black women and their experiences of feminism, politics, patriarchy, success, relationships and sexuality.
The Testaments is set more than 15 years after Offred disappears at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. The newer book answers questions that readers and viewers have asked about Atwood’s 1985 novel and its hugely successful television adaptation aired in 2017. A number of these answers relate to Offred, who was originally known as June, and whom Atwood reveals in The Testaments is still alive, works with the Mayday resistance in Canada, and follows her children’s lives from afar with maternal interest.
A second thread picked up from the TV series shows that Baby Nicole was smuggled into Canada and disappeared without a trace despite much effort expended by the Republic of Gilead to find and reclaim her as its poster girl. (And yes, the novel gives you an update!)
The most ruthless and intriguing of Atwood’s three narrators of The Testaments is Aunt Lydia. Her induction into the “order of Aunts” included a pivotal period of imprisonment in a stadium with hundreds of other women. “They were reducing us to animals – to penned-up animals,” she says. “We were to consider ourselves subhuman.”
Disempowered, Lydia chooses to collude with Gilead’s totalitarian regime. She becomes the chief controller of its “women’s sphere”, which means she’ll do what it takes to maintain her exalted position and quash threats from others of her gender.
She collaborates with the Commanders to enforce a theocracy which twists Old Testament scripture to justify the oppression and abuse of women. Senior Commanders are entitled to a Handmaid (with whom it is their duty to regularly copulate), a wife (think: a hothouse plant), and several Marthas (female servants). Any baby their Handmaid bears is claimed by the Commander and his wife as their own, and the Handmaid is moved on to another Commander to ensure she continues to procreate.
This system not only addresses Gilead’s infertility epidemic, it also wipes out the sins of fallen women – “redeemed” through pregnancy and childbirth. However, no woman is immune from breaking the rules or being punished severely for doing so by hanging, stoning, maiming, beating or other forms of torture. Wives (who are believed to be “dried goods” if they’re over 18 when they are wed) are equally disposable.
The two younger narrators of The Testaments help expose a wider context – showing that there might just be enough rottenness in the system, enough angst among its inhabitants, and enough shrewdness in the resistance movement to cause the regime to crumble.
Agnes, who was born and raised in Gilead, is being groomed to marry a Commander but is distinctly displeased with her “God-given” destiny. Daisy, a bolshie Canadian teenager, has a mysterious link with Gilead and, when her “parents” are targeted by the regime, key players in the resistance decide she should return to Gilead, and quickly. Daisy is trained for her mission by Mayday operatives Garth (to “kill with her thumbs”) and Ada (to pray) because Daisy will need both skills to survive in her new context.
Agnes, who has only ever been equipped in prayer, has little defence but silence and stillness when a paedophile dentist puts his hand on her pubescent breast “like a large hot crab”. A chilling moment.
Agnes and Becka have been friends for some time when Daisy joins them, and the trio’s bond becomes unbreakable. When Agnes and Daisy must flee Gilead, Becka conducts a prayer vigil. This is one of several signs that Gilead’s regime hasn’t completely destroyed people’s desire to commune with God personally, despite its relentless distortion of Christian theology to dominate and subdue them.
Atwood has said The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments are less a critique of religion and more an indictment of those who use it to gain power over others. She’s also said: everything in her future dystopia has happened somewhere in the world already; Gilead owes much to the United States’ Puritan past; and Gilead’s regime has more in common with certain repressive Muslim nations than with Christianity.
The Testaments is a grand book worthy of the Booker, sweeping in its vision and deft in its exploration of pressing issues. I also agree with Jia Tolentino from the New Yorker who says Atwood’s novel “helps us see more clearly the kinds of complicity required for constructing a world like the one she had already imagined, and the world we fear our own might become”. A major accomplishment.
Marjorie Lewis-Jones is an award-winning writer and poet, the Managing Editor of the South Sydney Herald and runs the literary blog www.abiggerbrighterworld.