Reviewed by Sarah Allen
People slept on the streets outside bookshops the night before the launch of The Testaments this September. The day of the launch was marked by a programme live-streamed to cinemas across the globe containing an interview with the author and readings from the book. This was, The Guardian told us, ‘the literary event of the year’, with hype on a Harry Potter level.
The centre of attention wasn’t, however, a phenomenon of children’s publishing, but a sequel (and in some ways a prequel) which followed 34 years after Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. This first book is a well-respected dystopian feminist text, often set for A-level and known for its subtle exploration of fear, loss, longing through the story of Offred, one of the handmaid surrogates brought in to bear children for infertile elite couples in the republic of Gilead. In it we see the distortion of Old Testament narratives to support a totalitarian regime run through surveillance and violence and strict division of the sexes. The three 2017-19 TV series, which extended Atwood’s original and made the handmaid’s red cloak and white winged bonnet instantly recognisable, have remade (and arguably reduced) the story for the #MeToo generation, reshaping the handmaid as an icon for 21st century popular feminism.
So, we now have ‘handmaids’ marching against proposed abortion limits and even Kylie Jenner holding a handmaid-themed birthday party. The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re told, has “a new prescience in the era of Donald Trump”. Strangely (and this has been noted by others) those marching in Washington don’t seem to dwell on the clearer parallels between the countries under sharia law and the dystopia of Gilead. Nor does anyone seem to apply Atwood’s indictment of surrogacy and polygamy/amory to western culture today.
If Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale against the 80’s backdrop of soviet totalitarianism and the Iranian Revolution, adding a feminist interpretation of puritan New England, The Testaments has been written against our current background of increasingly mainstream feminism. It’s also, in a large part, a response to the Handmaid TV show. Atwood acknowledges to her fans that “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in”. This means that the tone and content of the books are very different. Gone is nuance and fear, in is action and optimism.
The Handmaid’s Tale’s narrator was Offred, a mother and once a wife, now a handmaid. She is essentially a passive character, trapped physically by the regime and bound to her memories of the past. The Testaments has three narrators, whose separate stories become increasingly interwoven as the novel progresses. Of these three, Daisy and Agnes are young girls, one growing up in Gilead, one outside, and Lydia is an ‘Aunt’, a formidable manager of the handmaids and an architect of the system. This means that through Lydia we hear of how Gilead came into being and how complicit women become in their own oppression, scheming against each other for power. Lydia is the most interesting of these narrators, but still, the plot so drives the novel that she isn’t finely drawn. Like a slightly literary Hunger Games, the story bowls along through its 400+ pages until eventually the baddies (and they really are baddies) are dealt with through sisterly loyalty and a lot of female cunning, as well as some Shakespearean coincidence. Go girl power!
Underneath the action of the thriller-style plot, however, there remains some good Atwood subtlety. When Agnes doubts her faith, she says “you feel exiled. As if you are lost in a dark wood” but is reassured that the Bible tells a different story from Gilead’s doctrine. Still, the shocking Judges 19 -21 narrative of the Levite and his concubine referred to in The Handmaid’s Tale makes an appearance here, with, of course no mention of its subtext – that when each of us do “as [we] see fit”, disaster for women, and men as well, ensues.
Whilst some readers might see the book as a condemnation of Christianity, and of the danger of a doctrine of revelation which requires submission to an ancient text. We note that in both these books Jesus isn’t mentioned and Bibles are locked up. Gilead’s religion is all duty, law and power, with no grace and no questions. What Atwood condemns instead is the extremism possible in any thought system – even MeToo feminism, of which she recently said, “anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic, a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.” Her fans may not realise it, but they can be guilty of Gilead-like oppression as well. What should our response be? To open the Bible and point to the God-man who gave up power to set captives free.