The Testaments

Rescuing another post from my old blog. I do review books on Amazon, because I know how important reviews are in that arena, but I don’t usually publish them at large because I prefer to write books and read other people’s reviews of them.

But here, for a change, are my views on Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, because it has left me with mixed feelings. Part of those feelings grow from the fact that it follows her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, but it also follows three series of the TV drama centred on the horrendous world of Gilead.

I didn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale when it was first published. I came to it in the late 90s, when the news was full of horror stories from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and when the USA seemed to be a madhouse of Christian fundamentalists wanting creationism taught in schools and right-wing militias gearing up to take on the black helicopters of the UN that were just waiting their chance to destroy American liberty (when is it not?). The book seemed a chillingly believable representation of what already was as well as what might be. And it was an awesome read, something utterly different, a slow drip of non-events, possibilities, pervasive fear, the horrific made normal, a world suffocating in its claustrophobic hopelessness, and ending on an unanswered question – does Offred step into darkness or light? The fatuous analysis of her story in a symposium a couple of hundred years later makes an amusing sort of sense because Gilead was bound to pass into history as a mysterious puzzle. It couldn’t last: repressive societies never can, and being so insular and warped, its records would very likely have been destroyed, leaving plenty of room for historians to speculate. The book should have won the Booker Prize. It set a standard and shook minds.

I thought twice about deciding whether to watch the TV adaptation because adaptations are so often travesties, but I took the risk and was quickly captivated by the first series, which expanded on the book but followed it to Offred’s equivocal exit in the black van. The internalisation of thoughts and the slow creeping pace were allowed to come through, which I hadn’t expected.

I had second thoughts too about watching the second series, since it was obviously going to go beyond Margaret Atwood’s story and I suspected that it would do as so many TV series do – identify a winning formula and flog it to death. Was it going to be nothing but an endless succession of escape attempts, like an updated version of The Fugitive? No it wasn’t. The second and third series continued to follow Offred/June, but they managed to dissect and examine other elements in the sort of society that Gildead represents, the woman (Serena) who has embraced the new order, only to find herself its victim, the man (Commander Lawrence) who knows he is a war criminal as he faces up to the horrors he has helped to create, the universal distrust, the cruelties, the little acts of resistance, the hypocrisy and intrigue and the dehumanising effects of it all, even on the heroes.

Then comes The Testaments. It’s a novel that sets out to answer many of the questions raised by The Handmaid’s Tale, and for me that’s a problem, because the lack of answers is one of the strengths of the original story. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which weighs on the reader, creeping through the veins, it races along like a normal adventure story. I enjoyed it. It’s a good read, quite exciting, and not overly demanding. There are few horrific surprises to compare with the original because we already know what Gilead is and how it treats women, and the claustrophobia is gone because in part we are looking in from the outside, as the action ranges beyond Gilead into depressingly normal Canada. There are interesting points, like how a ‘liberal’ state deals with an obscenely repressive neighbour, the rebels within it (terrorists) and the refugees from it (illegal immigrants), but nothing to equal the shock value of The Handmaid’s Tale. A major problem with the plot, in my mind, is the unconvincing attempt to explain a lack of accurate records for Canada as well as Gilead for future centuries to get their teeth into.

But the one real disappointment for me in The Testaments was the character of Aunt Lydia. She is perfectly compatible with the character in the first book, cruel and power-hungry, but between the two lies the TV version, Aunt Lydia as portrayed by Ann Dowd. Now, normally, I would never dream of confusing novels with their TV adaptations, because adaptations invariably go off at tangents, add and subtract and alter and often drift disgracefully from the intentions of the author. But with The Testaments, Atwood has included details that appear only in the TV version, most obviously Baby Nichole, so for once I feel entitled to mingle the two.

Aunt Lydia

Aunt Lydia, in a society that represses all women, is the ultimate traitor, a women who enforces that repression. She inflicts unspeakable cruelties without qualms. She is part of the system, just like the Commanders who govern Gilead. The Commanders, all men, are scheming hypocrites who impose puritanical standards on everyone else while entertaining themselves at Jezebel brothels. They inflict barbaric punishments for any perceived misdemeanours by others, while luxuriating in their own power and yet they are constantly plotting and scheming to keep that power, because at any moment a rival will bring them down. They enforce belief in others, but believe nothing themselves. The world is full of just such people and they are drearily predictable in every society that bears any resemblance to Gilead. In The Testaments, it is made clear that Aunty Lydia is exactly like the commanders, a hypocrite who believes nothing that she preaches but who enforces the sick rules of the regime on others as part of her own grasp on power, or at least survival.

The TV Aunt Lydia is quite different. I’ve seen it suggested that the TV version tries to make her more sympathetic. Really? I think the opposite. For me, Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia is the most terrifying character in the story because she’s not a hypocrite but a true believer. She genuinely believes that she’s doing God’s work by having women forced to submit to monthly rape, eyes gouged out, genitalia mutilated, erring handmaids stoned to death, men torn to pieces as punishment. Conniving hypocrites are easy villains, but there is nothing quite as terrifying as a sincerely righteous zealot. Fanatics are the real monsters in this world.

I miss that version of her in The Testaments. I miss the chilling uniqueness of the first book. The Testaments is a good book, well worth reading, but did it really deserve to be joint winner of the Booker Prize? I don’t think so.

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