The Testaments

Margaret Atwood

Chatto & Windus, £20

DYSTOPIAN fiction is always unnerving, but never more so than when, as Margaret Atwood makes scrupulously sure, it is based on existing events.

When The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985, it captured people’s imagination because, while it was obviously far-fetched, it was also believable. The restrictions placed on womenfolk in Atwood’s Gilead are probably far more familiar to readers now than then, reminiscent of intolerance of the sort found in woman-hating states such as Iran, or among the Taliban, and beyond.

In Atwood’s punitive theocracy, where Biblical-sounding commands and aphorisms turn every sentence into a sermon, women are covered from head to toe for fear of inciting male lust. Those guilty of adultery are executed, as are any who rebel (of either gender), who are summarily hanged.

Atwood’s terrifying vision of a puritanical patriarchy run amok portrayed a society that had retreated to medieval attitudes. Gilead’s principles are based on religious fundamentalism, though there is no true spiritual flame, only the worship of a God as tyrannical as his servants. Women are deemed fit only to reproduce, or do menial tasks, or keep these armies of useful and productive females under control. Only a handful are allowed to learn to read, and these, the gauleiters of this monstrously repressive and violent regime, are called the Aunts. Who better to wield the whip than other women who fear demotion?

For more than 30 years, Atwood resisted blandishments to write a sequel. But even the High Priestess of Canadian fiction is susceptible to flattery. Eventually, after a prize-winning television series, and a Booker Prize shortlisting, The Testaments continues where The Handmaid’s Tale left off. In her introduction, Atwood acknowledges the inspiration eager readers gave her, but also the imaginative spark offered by “the world we’ve been living in”. As the novel unfolds, one cannot help feeling that Atwood’s fascinated disgust with the American President and the world he is shaping around him has, ironically, diminished rather than enriched her fiction.

Offred, the Handmaid whose account formed the original story, was separated from her husband and young daughter when the state of Gilead was created. The sole narrator, she described the primitive conditions in which she and her fellow Handmaids – not to mention the housekeeping Marthas and lowly Econowives – were forced to live. When she gave birth to a baby, not by her owner, a high-ranking Commander, but by an illicit lover, she was determined never to be parted from this child. As Offred plotted their hazardous escape, the novel’s pace turned from an absorbing description of a suffocating parallel universe into a thrillerish race.

The Testaments picks up the thread 15 years later, when Offred’s baby is a teenager called Daisy. With no knowledge of her mother, or her real name, she is in the care of her so-called parents who run a secondhand clothes shop in Toronto. The title of The Testaments obliquely refers to the Biblical region over which Moses ruled. In Hebrew, Gilead means “hill of testimony”, which makes it fitting that this sequel is composed of testimonies by three key figures in the fortunes of this authoritarian hell hole.

By far the most compelling testament is that of Aunt Lydia, a fearsome and ruthless character from The Handmaid’s Tale. Risking her neck by putting pen to paper – which she hides in a hollowed-out copy of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vitae Sua, which in this benighted place no-one is likely to open – she tells the reader that, because she is a woman and therefore inferior, she has survived three purges. How does she otherwise stay alive? “I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so.”

From her perspective, as a highly educated former judge, she outlines the collapse of old America and the diabolical rise of Gilead. On the day her office is raided and she tries to resist arrest, she is told: “Forget the Constitution, they just abolished it.” Echoing a passage in The Handmaid’s Tale, this will send a shiver up many spines. The guiding spirit of this novel is the old maxim: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes”. It’s a troubling thought.

Since its first days, Gilead has been almost constantly at war. Allowing Atwood to enjoy herself, Aunt Lydia informs us that Vermont and Maine are “prone to heresies”, the War of Manhattan reduced Grand Central Station to rubble, and Texas has managed to remain independent. A flood of refugees has fled, but now even countries like New Zealand are shutting their doors. Many die trying to reach the Canadian border in wintertime but coming to their aid, in the manner of the Underground Railway, is Mayday, a covert Canadian outfit.

Introducing Pearl Girls, who act as missionaries to convert vulnerable young women in other countries, Aunt Lydia fills her pages with the sort of imaginative detail Atwood is best at: sharp social and political observation, laced with invention and sardonic wit. “Think of yourself as a wanderer in a dark wood,” writes Aunt Lydia as her story unfolds. “It’s about to get darker.” Perhaps she’s been listening to Leonard Cohen’s valedictory album.

Jumping between past and present, her testament fills in many unanswered questions from The Handmaid’s Tale. As she reveals more about the early days of Gilead, and about herself, it gradually becomes clear that she is also intent on bringing down a rotting regime.

Aunt Lydia’s fellow narrators rather let down the side, acting as little more than a chorus. Functionally they are useful in plaiting the plot but fictionally they are unconvincing. One is motherless Agnes Jemima who, on reaching marriageable age (13), when she must wear clothes of bright green, would rather die than go through with it: “Wedlock: it had a dull metallic sound, like an iron door clicking shut.” Instead, she trains to become an Aunt, slowly losing her mind to brainwashing.

The third narrator is Offred’s baby daughter Nicole, whose abduction from Gilead became a cause celebre. Only belatedly does she learn that she is not Daisy from Toronto but a priceless political pawn. That discovery is preceded by deadly events. As they start to escalate, an increasingly convoluted plot gathers car-chase speed, but in so doing loses literary heft. Come the last chapters, you can almost hear the sewing machine whirring as Atwood stitches up all the frayed ends. In the process her prose becomes prosaic and even plodding.

In construction and tempo, The Testaments thus feels broken-backed. The first half is gripping, Atwood’s mischievous intellect creating a scenario that you would have to be blind and deaf not to recognise as relevant to our own times. Indeed, as novelist Valerie Martin wrote of The Handmaid’s Tale, what makes a book an instant classic is that “its timeliness increases with time”. When Aunt Lydia recalls that the supreme ruler of Gilead, Commander Judd, was unsuccessful in his Certificate of Whiteness scheme, you can almost hear Atwood chortle. Likewise when a paedophile dentist is allowed free reign to abuse, because he is so good at his job. Free, that is, until the Aunts learn what he has been doing and exact bloodthirsty retribution. This scene is a reminder that women can be just as nasty as men.

As The Testaments hurtles towards its denouement, there is a disappointing sense of Atwood joining the dots. The sure narrative voice and drive of The Handmaid’s Tale is lacking, as is the profound philosophical and sociological scaffolding that added such richness to the surface plot. “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment,” writes Aunt Lydia. “It’s always the same plot.”

Sadly for Atwood, that is also true of this dystopian world, whose fresh and invigorating power has been lost in over-explanation.