Tuesday 17 September 2019

The Testaments: Atwood's follow-up to The Handmaid's Tale is a powerful book that seems to hate men

Author Margaret Atwood. Photo: PA
Author Margaret Atwood. Photo: PA

Serena Davis

Thirty-four years is a little while to wait for a follow-up. Margaret Atwood wrote a sequel for 'The Handmaid's Tale', her 1985 hit dystopian novel, in part to meet the clamour of that book's fans, desperate to know what would happen to its heroine Offred, and how Gilead, the sinister version of the United States from the near future which has subjugated her, might possibly combust.

The result is 'The Testaments', probably the most eagerly anticipated novel of the year on both sides of the Atlantic, and subject of excitable leaks yesterday.

True to her mandate, Atwood has given us a blockbuster of propulsive, almost breathless narrative, stacked with twists and turns worthy of a Gothic novel.

Its characters are as lurid and schematic as its clever front-cover image (a woman in a bonnet in neon green) but, like the jacket picture too, impressive in their gestural efficiency. Because everyone can recognise that bonnet now: the wide deep hat, shorthand for the puritanical Gilead and its misogynistic mores, has permeated our culture thanks to the recent TV adaptation.

So too, we quickly pick up the functions of our key players in 'The Testaments'. There is not one narrator now but three: Offred's two daughters, Nicole and Agnes, and the terrifying Aunt Lydia, the ruthless enforcer of female oppression from 'The Handmaid's Tale'. The two (good, brave) girls have almost interchangeable personalities; Aunt Lydia is the more interesting, her commitment to the dark side a survival tactic with which we are invited to sympathise.

But most shorthand are the male characters. They are almost uniformly abhorrent, with a paedophile and a near-paedophile chief among them. It doesn't seem so much that this book is describing a corrupted world view that has resulted in distorted sexuality but that it really hates men.

Is there a conscious reference here to the male predatoriness that has stalked our news pages since #MeToo reared it head? I think Atwood is not making such a direct analogy: the whole effectiveness of Gilead as an idea has been that its abuses and tortures have always been cut and pasted from the real world, even before the rise of a religious lobby in America among other things, gave them a new relevance.

The oppressed feminist shriek of the first novel gets its more optimistic echo in 'The Testaments'. Atwood pulls from multiple literary antecedents, be it the 19th-century novelists the book mentions (Hardy and Bronte among them) or more recent dystopian work, a melodramatic, near hysterical tale that ultimately, rather pleasingly, suggests a world where women pull the strings after all.

John Lanchester's 'The Wall', which shared a place on the Booker longlist with 'The Testaments' but didn't join it on the shortlist, is the more elegant piece of dystopian fiction. But it is Atwood's book that has the dramatic thrust and power to shock, to scorch the memory. I'm just not convinced all men are going to enjoy reading it.

Read more: Leaks take shine off long-awaited sequel to 'Handmaid's Tale'


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