Blessed be the fruit!
A confluence of political and cultural forces has made “The Testaments” as vital as a baby in Gilead. First, the election of President Trump cattle-prodded “The Handmaid’s Tale” back up the bestseller list. Then Hulu’s adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss inspired millions more to care about the plight of the fertile few. And now that our reproductive freedom hangs on the frail health of a single 86-year-old Supreme Court justice, red-cloaked Handmaids have swarmed capitols across the country. Consequently, the terrain of Gilead is probably more familiar to Americans than the geography of the United States.
Fans of Atwood’s dystopian classic will remember that Offred, the narrator of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” concluded her secret testimony by acknowledging, “Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing.”
Now we know.
“The Testaments” opens in Gilead about 15 years after “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but it’s an entirely different novel in form and tone. Inevitably, the details are less shocking — at least in part because the horrors of Gilead’s male-centered theocracy are already so well known. When Offred first told her “sad and mutilated story,” we were hearing about the hangings, the Unbabies and the Sons of Jacob for the first time. But by now, Gilead’s breeding Ceremony is a creepy cultural touchstone.
Atwood responds to the challenge of that familiarity by giving us the narrator we least expect: Aunt Lydia. It’s a brilliant strategic move that turns the world of Gilead inside out. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Aunt Lydia is the orthodox teacher whose platitudes and instructions cycle through Offred’s mind. But in “The Testaments,” Aunt Lydia speaks directly to us in all her conflicted complexity. She has become the supreme matriarch of this masculine cult. “I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten,” she says. “And I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch.” As a living legend, the very model of moral perfection and feminine wisdom, she enjoys a special position of extraordinary power — and she knows just how precarious that is.
“Only dead people are allowed to have statues,” she begins, “but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”
That little pun is typical of Aunt Lydia’s wry wit, which endows “The Testaments” with far more humor than “The Handmaid’s Tale” or its exceedingly grim TV adaptation. This Aunt Lydia is publicly devout but privately defiant, outwardly pious but inwardly sardonic. Her arch irony, even flippancy, provides a markedly different interpretation than Ann Dowd’s terrifying portrayal for Hulu.
Writing in a journal at night in a library forbidden to all but a chosen few, Aunt Lydia reveals the story of her previous life, her traumatizing transition to the Republic of Gilead and her crafty political intrigue. She’s Sun Tzu and Machiavelli with a cup of cinnamon tea. Through a combination of good luck and her own ruthless instincts, she has survived and thrived to become the spider at the center of a vast web of “shameful information” to trap female competitors and intimidate her male superiors. “Some days I see myself as the Recording Angel, collecting together all the sins of Gilead,” she says. “On other days I shrug off this high moral tone. Am I not, au fond, merely a dealer in sordid gossip?” That’s the genius of Atwood’s creation. Aunt Lydia is a mercurial assassin: a pious leader, a ruthless administrator, a deliciously acerbic confessor. “Whoever said consistency is a virtue?” she asks.
But Aunt Lydia is not the only narrator of “The Testaments.” Interlaced among her journal entries are the testimonies of two young women: one raised in Gilead, the other in Canada. Their mysterious identities fuel much of the story’s suspense — and electrify the novel with an extra dose of melodrama. Together, this trio of voices allows Atwood to include broader details about how other countries respond to the Republic of Gilead. Freed from the intense but narrow constraints of Offred’s point of view in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Testaments” sketches out protest movements abroad, an underground railroad to ferry women north, the internecine conflicts rotting out the center of Gilead, and the Republic’s efforts to manipulate its image on the world stage.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” famously ends with the line, “Any questions?” And last November, Atwood told her 1.9 million Twitter followers that “The Testaments” was inspired by “everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings.” That certainly appears to be the case — the story is full of revealing backstories — but readers hoping for a complementary classic of dystopian literature may be disappointed. “The Testaments” is not nearly the devastating satire of political and theological misogyny that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is. In this new novel, Atwood is far more focused on creating a brisk thriller than she is on exploring the perversity of systemic repression.
But, of course, that’s not a fair complaint. Although the story of Gilead has long been called to the service of this or that contemporary cause, it remains entirely Atwood’s possession. In the new introduction to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she even pushes back again on the question of whether it’s a feminist novel: “If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no.” That strikes me as a straw-man argument — nobody defines great feminist fiction that way — but the fact that Atwood keeps challenging such categories is all part of her extraordinary effort to resist the chains we place on each other.
Gilead will never be the same.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
The Sequel to The Handmaid's Tale
By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese. 432 pp. $28.95