by Margaret Atwood
'Just look at Tirzah! She sits there, With her strands of vagrant hair; See her down the sidewalk stride, Head held high and full of pride. See her catch the guardian's glance, Tempt him to sinful circumstance. Never does she change her way, Never does she kneel to pray! Soon she into sin will fall, And then be hanging on the Wall.'
Margaret Atwood is one of the greatest legend-spinners of this century and the last. Her fantasies can be either off the scale or can hit home in unexpected ways. For more than fifty years, she has charmed, dazzled, amused and even shocked generations of readers with the clarity of her writing and the originality of her themes. In the mid eighties, her novel The Handmaid’s Tale broke new feminist ground, won awards and was nominated for several prestigious prizes.
That novel imagines a future in which the United States’ democratic government is overthrown by fanatics and replaced by an ultra-patriarchal system in which women’s rights are abolished. The society of Gilead, this new republic, is hierarchical. Men – Commanders – hold all the power; women are assigned to different roles according to perceived worth. Those include the Aunts – celibate (one presumes) pseudo-nuns who educate suitable women for their role as sexual slaves, Handmaids, who bear the Commanders’ children in the presence of their wives, and Marthas who do all the menial household tasks.
‘I felt it more than fair that [Aunt Elizabeth] be allowed to conduct the Particicution proceedings at the stadium. Grove was the second to be despatched. He had to watch as the Angel was kicked to death and then literally torn apart by seventy shrieking Handmaids.’
The Testaments continues the story into the next generation. It is told from three separate points of view, which begin to coalesce as the novel proceeds. Lydia, formerly a judge under the old regime, is top Aunt at Ardua Hall, responsible only to Commander Judd. He knows her past; she knows his secrets. However, Lydia walks a very fragile tightrope between duty to Gilead and responsibility to posterity. She can be harsh and unrelenting, but she can also be soft and sympathetic. She is writing a journal documenting the truth about the regime which she hopes the world will read one day.
‘She said …. any girl who’d been gifted with a woman’s body was obligated to offer this body up in holy sacrifice to God and for the glory of Gilead and mankind.’
The second chief character is Agnes Jemima, a young girl brought up in a privileged household in Gilead. Identified in the chapter headings as Witness 369A, she is a schoolgirl of six or seven years when the story begins. Destined as future bride to a Commander, she does not fully appreciate the true nature of the world into which she has been born. Then she discovers that Tabitha, the woman she believed to be her mother, is not her birth mother. She begins to see the people around her for what they are – self-serving, corrupt and cruel. On the eve of her intended marriage, Agnes realises she will do almost anything to escape it.
The third person in the triangle of narrators is Daisy, Witness 369B. She is older than Agnes and growing up in Canada with her parents, Neil and Melanie, who own a junk store selling old but ‘loved’ clothing. Canada is a free country but is threatened by subversive elements in the pay of Gilead. There are the Pearl Girls, trainee Aunts who act as missionaries to beguile unhappy or disaffected girls to cross the border for a better (religious) life. Other spies are engaged in terrorism.
‘…. Garth tried to teach me how to poke somebody’s eyes out; but the idea of squishing eyeballs with my thumbs gave me the shudders. It would be like stepping on worms in your bare feet.’
When Neil and Melanie’s store is blown up, Daisy discovers – like Agnes in Gilead – that they are not her true parents. She is taken under the wing of Mayday, an underground movement dedicated to helping women escape from Gilead. She becomes Jade and is recruited for a special role in the organisation.
How these three characters relate to one another, and to the events described in The Handmaid’s Tale, is at the core of the plot of The Testaments. Margaret Atwood cleverly weaves their stories together to create breathtaking suspense, stomach-turning horror and ultimately an exciting and emotional climax, in which the truth about the girls’ birth is revealed.
Like its predecessor, The Testaments is a frightening tale of what could be, if we do not properly value our democracies and treasure the freedoms our forebears have fought and died for. Atwood turned eighty on her birthday last Monday. She is still at the peak of her powers. The Testament is one of the best works – perhaps even the very best – that she has produced.
I don’t always understand Booker Prize choices. This one I do!