THOSE who have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, published nearly 35 years ago, tend not to forget it quickly. The Republic of Gilead, which we are introduced to, is a frightening place, not least because it is alarmingly close. It is a place where good manners embody a toxic moral compromise and become weapons of oppression and control, particularly over women’s bodies.
The novel shows us how what is one day an outrage can, over time, become ordinary. Such change creeps in unnoticed, and the character Offred observes: “In a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” Atwood herself has commented: “Everything in this dystopia has happened somewhere already.”
In The Testaments, we return to the “biblical” police state of Gilead 15 years later. It is narrated by three different female voices, including the coldblooded enforcer of sadistic torture Aunt Lydia. It has a spy thriller feel to it as we seek out who is working with the Mayday resistance to bring down the empire. It has the speed, wit, tight plot, and melodrama that any such thriller needs.
What we also encounter, however, is a novelist’s scrutiny of how our past shapes our present responses to good and bad, asking whether it is inevitable that hurt people hurt people. The novel appeals at some uncomfortable level to the lonely survivor in each of us. Like the best dystopian fiction, it looks back and ahead at the same time. It is a timely interruption in a socially, politically, and morally chaotic world in which the lie is so often becoming the truth.
One definition of Gilead is “hill of testimony”, and the three testifying voices in the novel are witnesses to the realities of the regime and, therefore, upholders of the subversion (or sub-version) that conflicts with the empire’s official narrative that silences the voices of women and those who are not friends of that silence. Together, they witness to the collapse of a state that was “rotting” beneath its “outer show of virtue and purity”.
This work, with its retrospective eyes, inevitably does not have the present tense’s suspense of The Handmaid’s Tale. The regime’s dark heart does not beat its blood through us so forcefully, and some might find the characters more removed and less intense than before. Although it throws light on the controlled evils of totalitarianism, it does not have that piercing heat of the Bunsen burner’s blue flame which many fans probably hoped would help burn off the loud lies of our present empires and their cultured and moneyed cruelties, as well as their degrading of human beings into first, second, and third class.
Nevertheless, it is a book worthy of our time, not least for its immovable question quoted at the beginning: “When we look one another on the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate — no, we’re gazing into a mirror. . . Do you really not recognise yourselves in us?”
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
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