The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, Chatto & Windus, 419 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1784742324
Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Testaments, the sequel to her dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), is bound to make for a markedly different reading experience for a novice to the Republic of Gilead than for the battered Gileadean veteran who has been through the wars – by which I mean not just the original novel and Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film adaptation but also the three seasons of the 2017-2019 Hulu TV series, remarkable for its visual aesthetic as well the harrowing explicitness of its depictions of violence. The same warning nonetheless applies here to all kinds of viewers and readers: this review contains spoilers.
The Testaments is a complex narrative woven out of three testimonies, supplemented, just as in the first novel, by a transcript of an academic symposium in which two historians familiar to us from the past discuss the three witness accounts as documentary evidence to be used in compiling Gilead’s history. The first and foremost of the testimonies comes in the form of a manuscript called the Ardua Hall holograph, written by an outspoken elderly woman with a high opinion of herself and a wicked sense of humour (especially when it comes to such hard-to-discipline subjects as imaginary penises). The text of the manuscript combines past-tense narration with present-tense appeals to the imagined reader so as to create the illusion of being composed even as we read. Its author’s confessions and revelations are layered throughout with alternating chapters from the recorded and transcribed voices of two much younger women – one brought up in Gilead in a Commander family, the other in a middle class home in free Canada. Coming from different backgrounds yet facing similar conundrums, these two look back on their deceptively innocent childhoods and reveal how they came to know the truth about themselves, about each other and about Gilead.
In its first part, The Testaments relies for its effect partly on having the reader play a guessing game. Whose are the three testifying voices? No fan of Gilead will fail to identify the elderly narrator as Aunt Lydia, the formidable “educator” of handmaids, whose ability to navigate the troubled waters of Gileadean politics (and to rise from the dead) is second to none. After guessing the real identities of both the young narrators, Agnes Jemima and Daisy, we are kept on tenterhooks as to the uncertain course of action plotted out for them – will it end in success, or in failure? Uninitiated readers might find this exercise slightly bewildering at first but may reap a greater emotional reward once the three characters are brought together, the central mystery is revealed and the story of the girls’ awakening turns into a spy novel-cum-action adventure. For the initiated, however, the guesswork will be child’s play and the supposed mysteries obvious – while the background stories of the three characters may feel too predictably “plotted” to compensate.
As tightly controlled and nearly as emotionally manipulative as the TV series, The Testaments resembles it more than the original novel in two other ways. Not only does it incorporate strands of the plot developed in the TV series’ second season, including the existence of baby Nicole and her successful smuggling out of Gilead into Canada. But more importantly, it succumbs – seduced by the adaptation’s popularity and critical success? – to the curse of not being content with telling the troubled stories of mere humans: it refashions its ordinary women into something close to indomitable action-movie heroines. Perhaps the least plausible is the magical transformation of Daisy – the sixteen-year-old Canadian – from a sheltered secondary pupil, moderately good at sports, into a full Ninja catapulted into Gilead (about which she knows only a little more than she learned in school). Soon after her arrival, she is forced to witness the sparagmos-like rite of particicution – the tearing apart of condemned men by a posse of bare-handed handmaids. Yet afterwards she seems hardly daunted by her ordeal and nonchalantly chooses to disregard the Aunts’ rules. How callous would a girl have to be to avoid being struck dumb by such brutality? How stupid would she have to be to continue risking her own safety by breaking even minor rules in the Aunts’ presence? I say this as someone who grew up in communist Czechoslovakia and who was obliged to participate, throughout primary and secondary school, in annual civil defense exercises in which we practised how to lob (fake) hand grenades into enemy trenches, pull on gas masks in under five seconds and protect ourselves in a chemical weapons attack (to be perpetrated by you, dear reader, the evil imperialist from the West). In November of 1989, while still in secondary, I nervously volunteered to put up illegal posters on Prague trams calling for a general strike that would end up in history textbooks as part of the Velvet Revolution. And yet the idea of playing it cool in Gilead like Daisy seems to me endowed with the kind of intense unreality that in Eastern Europe used to be captured by the Russian idiom kak v amerikanskom filme – it is as unreal “as in an American film”.
Daisy is not the only character with a credibility problem. The novel’s Aunt Lydia is marvellous as a ruthless plotter and behind-the-scenes operator – in her role of an éminence grise she reads like a hugely entertaining cross between Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya and the abbess Alexandra from Muriel Spark‘s novel The Abbess of Crewe (1974). But she is not half as credible as a reformed sinner. It is unclear what really motivates her to destroy the entire Gilead (as opposed to just Commander Judd) or why she would suddenly – after twenty long years of working her way to the top, not just with skill but with a lot of Schadenfreude – be willing to risk her all. True, Gilead may seem cheerless to some as long as dancing and nail polish remain verboten, but it is hard to imagine Aunt Lydia ever being crazy about either. Neither does the joy she derives from deceitfully manipulating and blackmailing others seem to have diminished with age. From the way she tells her story, moreover, one does not get a real sense of her being consumed with remorse over the crimes she not only had to commit at the start in order to stay alive – the subject of her one remorse-inducing nightmare – but all those other crimes she “had to” keep committing to stay in the rat race. Nor is there a sign that she has undergone an end-of-life conversion to some faith that would make it imperative to atone for past sins – notwithstanding her use of Newman’s Apologia to hide her seditious manuscript.
Historical evidence is not on Aunt Lydia’s side either. It strongly suggests that individuals in totalitarian regimes who manage to hold on to positions of power for years or even decades (!) tend to lose the ability to admit even to themselves the enormity of their crimes and the extent of their complicity, and are therefore incapable of genuine remorse. Rather, they cling to arguments justifying either themselves or the crimes they “had to” keep committing long after the initial emergency had passed. That Aunt Lydia would have belonged with such self-deluded characters rather than with genuine penitents is suggested by at least one of her remarks on the subject of regrets: “Hanging from a belt around my waist is my Taser. This weapon reminds me of my failings: had I been more effective, I would not have needed such an implement. The persuasion in my voice would have been enough.” Imagine the same remark coming from a guard in a Uighur “re-education” camp. Atwood runs a grave risk in The Testaments of turning Aunt Lydia into a villain so delightful in her gruff outspokenness, cleverness and dark humour, so understanding and benevolent toward her two young protégées as to blind the reader to the shakiness of her self-justifications.
There are many more deeper seams of thought running through The Testaments that make one regret the author ultimately chose to sacrifice their riches for the cheaper thrills of an adventure. Two themes come to mind, both of which echo the original Handmaid’s Tale. The first concerns the abysmal gap that opens in Gilead between inhuman time – be it a godly notion of eternity or the longue durée of wars and revolutions –and the all too human time of day-to-day existence. A single life, which in the hands of a historian can be squeezed into a footnote (the kind of vision emphasised in the symposium supplements) expands in the individual stories into a more authentic experience in which a moment, an hour, a day, a year may pass in a flash or become an eternity: especially if in that time you turn from a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old into a menstruating young woman; are forced to live according to someone else’s preferences; or if Gilead’s downfall comes too late for you because your mind or body have crumbled. It is the burden of this existence – alternating between the unbearable tedium of “blank time” and the absurd horror of events which punctuate it – that gave the original Handmaid’s Tale its power and flavour. Its nameless narrator found herself mostly unable to act, not just in order to escape the horrors but to escape the vacuum of her attenuated existence. She was being ground down not just by the bastards of Gilead but by the slow passage of time emptied of everything desirable, especially loving human contact. Her defences against this, the very source of the narrative’s poignancy, were a heightened sensitivity to nature (seasons, flowers); a heightened perception and appreciation of everyday objects (“The minimalist life. Pleasure is an egg.”); obssessive returns to the past in extended flights of reminiscence and fantasy; and last but not least, the remnants of hope implicit in the narrator’s telling of her story to an imagined listener/reader.
This same ability to capture a significant moment in the flow of embodied experience is also evident in The Testaments: in observations of nature (“The leaves of the trees had that glossy sheen, so fresh and newly unfolded; as if they were gifts, each one, unwrapping itself, shaken out for the first time.“), in remarks on the significance of such mundanities as women’s hair (“hair is about life. It is the flame of the body’s candle, and as it dwindles the body shrinks and melts away”), in girlish flights of nightmarish fantasy reminiscent of Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber: “the shattering of the glass house, then the rending and tearing and the trampling of hooves, with the pink and white and plum fragments of myself scattered over the ground”. But mostly, the subject of time’s passing is treated in a more abstract, less engaging way, for example by having Agnes Jemima memorise and later read out a passage from the Psalms (90:4-6) – “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night […]” – which pitches the eternal perspective of the Divine even more sharply against the eminently “witherable” human. How to retain one’s belief in the primacy of fragile, transient humanity when constantly finding oneself “under His eye”?
The burden of time in The Testaments weighs most on Aunt Lydia, however, rather than on any young supplicant. The main action of The Testaments is set some sixteen years after the birth of the contested baby Nicole, which means Gilead is about twenty years old. The timeframe suggests a desire to move from a state of permanent revolution – a regime based on coercion, violent displays of power legitimissed by theocratic ideology – to a much more “normalised” kind of totalitarianism, hoping to achieve its ends by less openly violent methods: indoctrination and perhaps even a transformation of its subjects, especially the high-caste innocents born into the new regime with no memory of the past. As Huxley pointed out in his Brave New World, “[a] really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude”. But even the middle-to-late Gilead of The Testaments remains light years away from accomplishing this goal: bodies still hang on the Wall, particicutions are still ongoing, the Aunts still use tasers and punishment cells. The story Aunt Lydia not only writes but composes in the strong sense (by scheming to bring about its events) is her way of trying to make sure that her legacy, in the form of her apologia per vita sua, enters the longer-lasting historical record of Gilead as she wants to have it read. But one wonders whether it is not also her way of fighting against her own hellish eternity of time. Just as you, reader, exist only insofar as you read, Aunt Lydia rewrites herself therefore she really is, regardless of any apologetics. The Testaments has perhaps missed a chance to make Aunt Lydia’s “turn” more credible by dwelling some more on the loneliness underlying her outwardly full-on existence, the sheer absence in her life of someone she could really trust and talk to, and not just about Gilead.
The second central theme in both novels concerns the gap between the “innocent and ineffectual […] tiny rebellions” of young girls and the effective political engagement of adult women. How are the rebellious young to avoid the political complacency of their blinkered predecessors, how is their boisterous energy to be channelled into wider political activism rather than allowed to dissipate as soon as they turn into librarians or judges preoccupied with jobs, mortgages, children, gardens? The Handmaid’s Tale forces the narrator to confront her erstwhile complacency, and ultimately, quite unlike the TV series, passes a pessimistic verdict on such apolitical women. She is unable to join the resistance; her attempts to manipulate the men who enslave her or fall in love with her are barely, if at all, enough to save her own skin, not to mention anyone else’s – and the same is true of her friend Moira’s isolated acts of revolt.
In The Testaments, those same regrets are part of Aunt Lydia’s background story: “My life might have been very different. If only I looked around me, taken in the wider view.” Which may explain why she ultimately uses her secret archive to disabuse her indoctrinated protégées as to the true nature of Gilead – in order to free them from a similar fate, moved by real sisterhood and sympathy. On the Canadian side of the story, political awakening is accomplished by the traditional novelistic device of orphaning the child heroine – the only people willing to help the orphan and tell her the truth are the surviving members of the Mayday resistance. And yet one feels the problem of authentic political education – driven by inner need, not supplied from outside, and eschewing both indoctrination and proselytising – has been fudged rather than explored. How does a child, who grows up ignorant of alternatives to the bubble of a world she is in, get an inkling that there is “too much that is wrong” with it, as Agnes Jemima puts it – beyond mere failings of corrupt individuals (such as paedophiles abusing positions of trust to assault young girls) or patterns of behaviour common to very different kinds of societies (hostile relations between stepmothers and stepdaughters)? How does she progress from ineffectively rebelling against all authority to taking coordinated action targeted at real injustice? If the feminists used to make their case by pointing out that “the personal is political”, Atwood’s sequel seems to go backwards in reducing the political to variations on the personal: Gilead’s hoped-for downfall seems less a question of politics and more the potential joint outcome of Aunt Lydia’s desire to avenge herself on Commander Judd, Agnes Jemima’s dread of being married to a “goat on fire”, and Daisy’s desire to impress her first crush. Rather than undergoing authentic political Bildung, the two young women in The Testaments resemble “suitable human material” (a phrase favoured by communist ideologues charged with “youth formation“) in the hands of much older and less than scrupulous female Machiavels.
The Testaments is undeniably a testament to Margaret Atwood’s literary mastery. She has produced the modern equivalent of a traditional fairy tale – a young adult fantasy – but one that is beautifully written, cleverly plotted and only rarely suffers from didacticism. We are told a tale of two awakening-to-woke sleeping beauties and their daring adventures, complete with a powerful witch with a mole on her chin who (somewhat improbably) tries to atone for her misdeeds by orchestrating the evil empire’s downfall and going down with it – in the not-so-unselfish hope of re-emerging, a century or two later, as the good witch of the Ardua Hall holograph, or at least a fascinating subject of historical biography. (Given the open ending, Aunt Lydia might also be hoping to get resurrected yet again for another season of the TV series, going even beyond The Testaments.) Insightful and touching in places, the novel as a whole nevertheless feels as unreal as a thriller. It leaves at least this greying reader wistfully looking back at the much more pedestrian record of “existence through time” left by the nameless narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale. To paraphrase Lenin (of all people), I quite understand children liking beautiful fairy tales. But, I ask, is it proper for a serious rebel to believe in fairy tales? To which some may object: but what if the fairy tale contains more than one enduring truth? What harm can it do to let girls dream of kicking ass in Gilead? Thinking of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Aras Amiri and Saba Kord Afshari, currently jailed in Iran, of Loujain al-Hathloul, currently jailed in Saudi Arabia, and of Liu Xia, currently living in exile in Germany, let’s hope none of the young readers of The Testaments are forced to find out just how terribly unlikely most of us are to kick ass (in a good way) in any current or future version of Gilead. Adults would do well to supplement Atwood’s fictive histories of Gilead with the real ones by Anne Appelbaum, Timothy Snyder and others.
Alena Dvořáková is a translator, editor and literary critic from Prague, now based in Dublin. She has translated a number of acclaimed works of literary fiction from English into Czech, including Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree and, most recently, the novels City of Bohane and Beatlebone by Kevin Barry. She is currently at work on a translation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. She regularly contributes reviews and essays to the Czech literary review Souvislosti (www.souvislosti.cz).