Margaret Atwood: The Testaments
The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly Margaret Atwood’s best-known book and probably the best-known Canadian novel. Quite apart from the fact that it was superbly well written – which it was – its fame came from its subject matter, namely the ill-treatment and subjugation of women in the country of Gilead, a successor country to the United States. The basic story involves a group calling itself the Sons of Jacob killed the President and most of Congress and took over the country, creating a theocracy and phallocracy.
The basic story, within that framework concerns the lack of fertility of women, because of pollution. Women become workers, subject to men, and fertile women become handmaids, carrying babies for the ruling class.
Not only has the book remained in the forefront because of its theme and because of the treatment of women in the United States and elsewhere, the the widely successful TV version, which took the story somewhat further, was critically acclaimed. Not surprisingly, when this book was announced it was eagerly anticipated.
It is unusual for there to be stories about the embargo of a novel not written by J K Rowling but there have been some for this one. As this book was to be released in time for the Man Booker Prize, not only was there a strict embargo, every copy given to the judges had a unique watermark, so that it could be traced if it was released into the wild. However, Amazon “accidentally” released quite a few copies to customers before the embargo date. They apologised but as it was Amazon you know they will face zero consequence.
The book is primarily set some fifteen years after the final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale and primarily follows the stories of three women.
The first is Aunt Lydia. We have met her in The Handmaid’s Tale. In Gilead terminology, an aunt is an older woman, normally past child-bearing age, who acts as a teacher/mentor to younger women. In the course of this book, she has become fairly powerful (for a woman). She is in charge of Ardua Hall, where women are trained to be wives/mothers, Supplicants (trainee aunts) or to be Pearl Girls (missionaries for Gilead abroad which, as regards this book, means Canada).
We follow her story from the revolution. At that time, professional women were arrested (she had been a lawyer) and subject to considerable abuse. Ultimately, they were given a choice – death or loyalty to the new regime. To prove their loyalty, they had to execute the recalcitrant women.
Lydia followed the party line, though we are aware that she is not as well-behaved as her boss, Commander Judd, thinks. However, she is prepared to make the necessary compromises to survive. She is also prepared for some infighting at which she is particularly adroit.
The second woman we follow is Agnes. We follow her from childhood. She thinks that she is the daughter of Tabitha who has brought her up as her own daughter but we and she learn that she is, in fact, the daughter of an unknown handmaid. Tabitha is married to Commander Kyle. When Tabitha dies, Kyle marries Paula. Agnes is brought up in the traditional way, namely to be a wife and mother. She is not happy about this and is even further put off men when she is sexually abused.
When a (much older) husband is found for her, she follows her friend, Becka, and goes to Aunt Lydia to ask to become a supplicant. She is accepted and becomes Aunt Victoria. (Aunts tend to be named after various women’s products. Victoria presumably wittily comes from Victoria’s Secret.)
The third woman is Daisy. She is the daughter of Neil and Melanie and lives with them in Toronto, where they have a second-hand clothes shop. Neil and Melanie work with an organisation helping refugees from Gilead and we and Daisy learn that she is not their daughter but a Gilead baby rescued by them. Life is made more complicated when the Gilead authorities want her back.
As well as these three stories, we follow events in Gilead. They are very concerned that many women are escaping through what is wittily called the Underground Femaleroad (and which in some cases, follows the actual routes of the Civil War era Underground Railroad). They spend a lot of time trying to shut down the various escape routes and the Pearl Girls under Lydia’s control are involved in this.
We also learn about life in Gilead. Books are not entirely banned but many are. (My mother said that books were decorations, like vases of flowers. Most girls are not taught to read. Enthusiastic book-burnings have been going on across our land. The girls are also warned about the dangers of men and we see some evidence of that.
Of course, we also learn about the superiority of men. The important things that men did, too important for females to meddle with because they had smaller brains that were incapable of thinking large thoughts and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.
Punishments for various crimes (which include adultery, at least for women) are brutal. Particicution is a form of execution where the culprit is torn to pieces by a group of handmaids. Hanging is a common punishment, with the body being displayed hanging on a wall for all to see.
However, things are not going well in Gilead. The floods, the fires, the tornadoes, the hurricanes, the droughts, the water shortages, the earthquakes. Too much of this, too little of that. The decaying infrastructure—why hadn’t someone decommissioned those atomic reactors before it was too late? The tanking economy, the joblessness, the falling birth rate.
Inevitably all three women meet up and we follow not only what happens to them but also we move well ahead into the future to a conference of historians discussing the events.
This book fully deserves the applauds it has received. Atwood tells a superb story but also very strongly makes her point about the subjugation of women. We may all laugh and say this couldn’t happen here (here being in this case, the United States) but how many of us thought Trump would become president? Women have been oppressed throughout history and continue to be oppressed, particularly in countries and cultures where they are still considered inferior to men. Atwood is certainly not going to let us forget this. It is a pity that Trump will not read this book.
First published 2019 by McClelland & Stewart