IN A contemporary review of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in 1986, the critic Patrick Parrinder suggested that the author’s art was “based on the proposition that fear is good for you”. For readers starting the year in the shadow of a global pandemic, that may sound like an unnecessary tonic. By way of a warning, the novel’s Booker prize-winning sequel, The Testaments, demonstrates that, at 80, Atwood has lost none of her taste for the macabre; there is plenty here to make one’s blood run cold.
Her original novel told the story of Offred, a prisoner of Gilead, a theocratic regime in early-21st-century America in which women were stripped of their rights and forced to perform chilling sexual rituals — inspired by the Genesis account of Rachel’s handmaid — in order to solve a fertility crisis. It is a terrifying depiction of subjugation, but a celebration too, of women’s capacity for resistance, not least in the act of storytelling. Despite Gilead’s perversions, Offred had faith — that someone would eventually read her words, and that, eventually, the regime would fall: “It can’t last forever.”
The Testaments is Atwood’s account of how this collapse, or felling, might come about, and, while it is indeed frightening, it is also thrilling, a meditation on courage which asks us to consider what our own response might be were we forced to choose between meek complicity and rebellion at risk of death. Painting Gilead on a larger canvas this time, filling in gaps in its history and construction, Atwood takes to task those readers who identify too easily with its heroes and martyrs. “What good is it to throw yourself in front of a steamroller out of moral principles and then be crushed flat like a sock emptied of its foot?” muses one of her complex creations.
We are given three narrators this time. There are two young women — Agnes, brought up in Gilead, and Nicole, living across the border in Canada — and Aunt Lydia, the architect of the Handmaids and one of the villains of the original novel. The three are eventually united at Ardua Hall, where Aunt Lydia presides as a type of Abbess, craftily carving out a domain in which women exercise a degree of power, including access to the written word. Entrance is granted to those who can prove that they have a “higher calling” than marriage.
© Luis MoraMargaret Atwood, author of the 2019 Booker Prize winner The Testaments
Offred is offstage throughout the novel, but it is these three who carry her hopes. While her tale was claustrophobic — her world having largely shrunk to the home in which she was imprisoned, as well as daily walks to the shops — this story has the proportions of an espionage thriller. There are echoes of fairy-tales — Bluebird and his string of dead wives, Cinderella and her wicked stepmother — but reminders, too, of Shakespeare’s fondness for hidden identities, missing mothers, and stormy sea passages home. Agnes’s desperate bid to avoid marriage and her flight to Ardua call to mind accounts of chaste female saints such as Frideswide, but without the promise of godly sanctuary: Atwood has never shied away from the female capacity for cruelty.
While Gilead’s rulers lay claim to Christianity, it has always been clear that it is the exploitation of religion by power-hungry fanatics rather than religion itself which Atwood abhors. Faith is the inspiration for many of those working for the downfall of the regime, including the Quakers who play a crucial part in smuggling refugees out of the country via the Underground Femaleroad.
Atwood knows her Bible — described in The Handmaid’s Tale as an “incendiary device” — and, while some of her allusions are darkly comic, others speak to her appreciation of faith as a motivating force for good. When Agnes eventually discovers that the stories that she has been taught in Gilead are a distortion of those found within the Bible, she is plunged into crisis — one that those who have never had faith will struggle to understand, she suspects. “You feel as if your best friend is dying; that everything that defined you is being burned away; that you’ll be left all alone.” Will it be possible to give up Gilead but retain God? The beautiful prayer that she offers up towards the novel’s conclusion points to a hopeful answer.
In the years since it first appeared, The Handmaid’s Tale has become something of a cultural phenomenon. A TV adaptation has won critical and popular acclaim, and women have adopted Offred’s red gown to protest against governments around the world. In truth, I have always struggled to believe fully in the premise of Gilead, which begins with a mass assassination of Congress, but perhaps that’s a sign of my naiïvety. “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you,” Aunt Lydia observes.
Whatever lies in store for us this year, the story of Ardua Hall’s daring inhabitants is a shot in the arm for those of us needing a reminder of where faith-fueled courage can take us.
Madeleine Davies is the features editor of the Church Times.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-78470-821-4.
THE TESTAMENTS — SOME QUESTIONS
- The villainous Aunt Lydia of The Handmaid’s Tale is given nuance and complexity in this novel. Is she redeemed, in your eyes? Why, or why not?
- In a desperate situation, how would you decide whether to resist or co-operate?
- What part does Becka play in The Testaments? Is she a victim, or is she in control of her choices?
- “When a shameful thing is done to you, the shamefulness rubs off on you.” How do women in Gilead take on the shame of their oppressors?
- Why, in your opinion, have books and reading been so consistently viewed as dangerous (both in Gilead and in history), particularly for women?
- Atwood has long been adamant that her books are based in realities past and present. Which aspects of The Testaments seemed particularly relevant in today’s world?
- “You must permit me some space to mourn the good that will be lost.” What aspects of Gilead might be mourned, do you think?
- “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories.” Have you experienced this?
- “Melanie and Neil were not your parents.” What makes a parent?
- “In the end, how much of belief comes from longing?” How would you answer this question?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 February, we will print extra information about our next book, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-0-09-947847-8).
In the seamy criminal world of 1930s Brighton, the teenage gang-member Pinkie has committed murder. To protect his freedom, he must first deal with the problem of the innocent waitress (and fellow Roman Catholic), Rose, who could testify against him. He believes that he has two choices: another murder, or marriage. Meanwhile, Ida Arnold, a middle-aged entertainer turned amateur detective, pursues the truth and attempts to protect Rose. Over the course of the novel, Greene questions relationships between sexuality, violence, and religion. He also explores two very different notions of Catholicism in Rose and Pinkie, alongside Ida’s more secular morality.
The novelist, playwright, and journalist Graham Greene (1904-91) was born in Hertfordshire and studied History at Balliol College, Oxford. He had an unhappy childhood and struggled with his mental health, reportedly attempting suicide. He became a Roman Catholic in 1926, although later in life he referred to himself as a “Catholic Agnostic”. An avid traveller throughout his life, Greene was also involved in espionage, serving in MI6 from 1941 to 1944. Some years later, he played a small part in Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution by couriering winter clothing to rebels. Much of his writing focuses on religious questions and the character of the “sinner”.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
March A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
April The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner