Sunday 20 October 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood       {Reviewed by STELLA}
Hailed as 'the book of our time', Margaret Atwood takes us back to Gilead in her much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: The Testaments. And a testament it is. It’s fifteen years since the doors closed on Offred, and we are quickly absorbed again into the world of Gilead through the witness accounts of its fall by two women: 'Witness Testimony 369A' and 'Witness Testimony 369B'. These 'found transcripts' are now studied along with other records of the women of Gilead. As you can imagine, these are far and few considering the scant access to (and inability to read) the written word by those who lived in Gilead. The most compromising and informative manuscript is known as 'The Ardua Hall Holograph', written by Aunt Lydia — one of the four founding Aunts. And in we go, into Gilead and into the walls of the silenced. Here we are buried knee-deep in treachery, in bullying and political machinations — in a society bereft of honesty and bound by dogma. Lydia and the founding Aunts hold powerful positions within this structure, yet this substructure does little but feed the demands of the Commanders (the elite) and is at the mercy of their whims. Lydia as the appointed leader has played a poker-faced game — always wary of Commander Judd, playing her cards with humility but always (she hopes) with a trump up her sleeve. It is a dangerous game, one that she and the Aunts cannot win, but survival is possible. The strength of The Testaments is in Lydia’s voice: complex, assured and terrified, we start right at the beginning with her. The downfall of America as it was, the destruction of democracy, and the denial of human rights to all women and most men. Lydia had been a judge and the commanders see in her abilities that will be useful to them in this autocratic regime. She has the prospect of being a ‘judge’ again, albeit one that goes against all her beliefs — deciding who will be a Handmaid, an Aunt, an Econowife, a Wife; how crimes of men, as well as women, will be punished — but all this within the strict code of Gilead, one that the Commanders have designed. Aunt Lydia is both revered and feared, reflecting her status in and worth to Gilead, but she has a secret — her written record (the Holograph) hidden in the depths of the inner library of Ardua Hall. The witness testimonies are from two young women, one Agnes — a daughter of a commander — and the other,a teenager living in Canada, just over the border outside Gilead. As the story unfolds, their lives become intertwined. The codes of Gilead have affected them both. Agnes, a privileged child, is ‘schooled’ by the Aunts, along with the other commanders’ daughters. They are readied for marriage — schooled in the arts of embroidery and flower arranging and indoctrinated in the rules of Gilead. When her father takes a new wife, Paula, it is quickly decided that at thirteen Agnes is ready for marriage, something she is understandably terrified of.  Rescued from this plight by announcing that she has been ‘called’, she escapes into the confines of Ardua Hall to train as a Pearl Girl on the road to being an Aunt. Here she meets Jade, a meeting that will have a profound effect on her and many others in Gilead. There is much more to the plot but you will have to read The Testaments —  to say more would spoil the revealing page-turner. When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in the 1980s it felt like a dystopia, hardly believable despite its resonances in women’s rights movement of that time. But when there was renewed interest in the last few years (partly due to the television series) it felt more prescient and urgent. The increasing power of elites, the decreasing autonomy of women and minorities (think abortion laws in America, revoking of the right to peaceful protest, increased police and military power in the face of ‘terrorism’, control of media and data to shift political opinion and influence voter behaviour) makes The Testaments (and its predecessor) more vital, and frighteningly close to the edge of what could be. Are we brave enough like the women in The Testaments to fight for a humane society or are we undone by the helplessness as part of an insane society? Or are some of us complacent — unwilling to risk our small bubble of safety and superiority?  These are the challenges of Gilead. It is interesting to note that Atwood does not include anything in her ‘dystopias’ that has not already occurred. Announced this week, The Testaments is the joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.   

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