November 2019

Noted

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘The Testaments’
The Booker Prize–winning sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is an exhilarating thriller from the “wiliest writer alive”

It is 15 years after the ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilead, the totalitarian state, is disintegrating in the expected ways. The Eyes, the secret police, dominate. Laws are made for men by men, and brutally realised, while the women go about their daily lives not daring to disobey. Yet here, in The Testaments (Chatto & Windus), are exhilarating narratives of three women who do dare.

Wicked Aunt Lydia commands the most gripping testimony. Aunt Lydia, now the franchise of Ann Dowd (who plays her in the Handmaid’s Tale television series), motors through the novel with a power of intelligence and cunning. And wisdom. Malicious, vengeful, but still wisdom. The Testaments, set in the near future, also points to the future of writing: in her acknowledgements, Atwood writes how the novel emerged from reader and viewer demand, becoming a collaboration of those involved in the television series. The new creative connection is a story in itself.

But while Dowd’s Aunt Lydia is a force in The Testaments, Elizabeth Moss’s Offred is absent and the Handmaids themselves are haunting background in a classic thriller. The three women who speak are Lydia, foundation and most powerful Aunt in Gilead; Agnes, Gilead-born daughter of a Commander; and a Canadian girl of 16 who changes names as she changes countries. Her favoured name is Jade, chosen because it is hard; because she is a revolutionary, involuntarily at first, and smart and courageous. Agnes and Jade provide the action to The Testaments, but the strategy is always Aunt Lydia’s.

Lydia lives in Ardua Hall, residence of high-status women. It functions as a traditional priory, including dress, obedience and nine years of novitiate training for the aspirants to become Aunts. Men are not welcome, and need permission to enter. The women of Gilead walk with downcast eyes and corralled minds but Aunt Lydia, dry as an old turnip, canny and hellbent on destruction, registers the girls who are not the model preferred by the men. She can work with them. She starts by teaching them to read.

Atwood might be the wiliest writer alive. And brilliant, though this does not do justice to the scope and playfulness of her imagination, the depth of her moral questioning and her fury about the state of the world, which she loves so profoundly and mourns. Her work is magnificent and urgent. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale 35 years ago. Now, in our time, there is a president, a commander-in-chief, with a current wife at his side who, in her silence, her vacancy and her elaborate dress, is a creature of Atwood’s early imagination. Atwood’s new prophecy encompasses the stamina and idealism of youth and the engaged wisdom of the old. The Booker Prize win will bring new readers, and reading, according to Atwood’s testimony in this novel, is the place to begin.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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