Posts Tagged ‘feminist fiction’

Margaret Atwood: The Testimonies

September 16, 2019

71KFmh0gnCL._AC_UY218_ML1_   This was a binge-read, because at first reading the plot is what one is mainly interested in; I shall be re-reading the novel more slowly sometime soon and may come up with different and more considered responses. I hadn’t expected a sequel to a novel I’ve read and taught more times than I can remember, and was keen to see what Atwood would do with her ideas. (Warning: this post probably contains spoilers!)

The Historical Notes at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale tell us that Gilead is no longer in existence, and offers various ways in which the story might be continued. As I read my way through The Testimonies, I became aware of a deliberate choice: the previous book had been the Handmaid’s tale, in the Chaucerian sense if you like, and this sequel does not give a voice to any handmaid; instead it might perhaps have been titled ‘The Aunts’ Tales’, for it is around their world, and completely different perspective, that the plot revolves, and instead of the cold horror of the Handmaid’s isolation in the earlier work, there is a sense of women together being powerful and capable. And coming from The Handmaid’s Tale, this is completely unexpected.

The novel’s structure resembles that of the earlier novel, with perspectives shifting between sections, and fairly quickly we are with Aunt Lydia, who is apparently writing a secret journal preserving information about Gilead for the future. The cynical tone of the narrator as she writes suggests that all is not quite what it seemed. Along with her perspective, there is that of other Aunts, as well as those of several young girls being groomed for their future roles in Gileadean society, and it transpires that one of the ways to avoid becoming a Wife is to get yourself taken in to become a Pearl Girl, a trainee Aunt. Eventually there are two stories developing: Aunt Lydia’s and Baby Nicole’s (and it turns out that she may have been one of the Handmaid’s babies smuggled to Canada in the earlier novel).

In a similar way to how there is almost some sympathy elicited for the Commander at certain moments in The Handmaid’s Tale, we are initially shocked by feeling sympathetic towards Aunt Lydia; then we are possibly heartened to learn that she seems to be playing an incredibly dangerous double game, which is rendered plausible by rather more backstory to Gilead than we had in the earlier novel.

It becomes a compulsive and gripping read because we know the previous book and are connected to some of the characters again; by the middle it feels almost like a thriller, quite conventional in a way, and this jarred for me as I recalled the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testimonies is a more conventional novel, less inventive and experimental, less bleak than the earlier novel, although there are some echoes I noticed: the Bible is still altered to suit the purposes of the regime, there is another bog Latin phrase to play with, and occasionally there is some of the playfulness with language that was so clever in the earlier novel. And there is still the meaningless war going on, 1984-style.

As I approached the end, I was realising just how good the novel is, building on what The Handmaid’s Tale gave us more than thirty-five years ago: the backstory of the transformation of the US into Gilead is much more detailed, convincing and scarily possible in the changed times we’re living in now. The picture of Aunt Lydia, which initially seemed a deus ex machina, is more believable when we look at the two novels side-by-side: the Handmaid was utterly isolated and powerless, and the Handmaids in The Testimonies still are. We do not fully understand the world of the Aunts at the very beginning of Gilead; later on their potential becomes clearer. Atwood offers hope in what she calls women’s silent power, that of finding things out, and it is that accumulated knowledge that Aunt Lydia seeks to use…

Atwood’s power and craft shine through, I think. It’s a satisfying enough sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale – which didn’t need one, but there are always those who don’t like open endings, who want to know what happened next, as if the characters and situations were actually real – and there is genuine hope in the idea that even in a society like Gilead, you cannot suppress the minds and thoughts and ideas of everyone. And no, I really didn’t expect The Testimonies to end with another Historical Notes…

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Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

November 6, 2014

9780099496953 I can’t off-hand remember how many times I’ve taught this text to sixth-formers. After a few years, I’ve come back to it, in order to write a study guide. As always, there is something new to notice, even when coming back to a text one is very familiar with.

For a novel that’s been around for thirty years or so, and can be described as ‘speculative fiction’, it’s dated remarkably little; many of the ideas that Atwood found already part of society when she was writing are still evident. Certainly it reads more convincingly that, for instance, Nineteen-Eightyfour thirty years after that novel was first published.

Offred’s story – that of a woman in the newly established Republic of Gilead, in the eastern part of the former USA, a fertile female assigned to a deserving male for breeding purposes – still has the power to shock, but, more importantly, to make the reader reflect on so many aspects of the power relationships between men and women in society. However, it was not this aspect of Atwood’s novel that spoke most strongly to me this time around.

The tone of the narrative is marvellously developed and sustained: Offred tells her story is the first person, experiencing, feeling and describing, with even her dialogue and that of others subsumed into the texture of her narrative, partly by the very simple device of not using inverted commas to demarcate any speech. This reinforces the timelessness of her story, in which most of her life is just waiting around, frittering time away, being bored, and being tormented by her memories of her past. She is intensely focused on words, language and meaning; she tunes into plays on words, definitions, shades and changes; even her illicit nighttime encounters with her Commander are filled with games of Scrabble… the time she has on her hands, this superfluity, adds an almost poetic quality to her narrative. It’s highly effective, helping draw the reader more deeply into Offred’s tortured being.

The second thing that struck me even more forcefully this time was the cleverness of Atwood’s narrative structure; the layering of the stories reminded me more than once of Shelley‘s Frankenstein. This deliberate – and oh so subtle – shifting of our perspectives and opinions nudges us in the direction of realising the complexities of the sexual-political issues Atwood is exploring via Offred’s experiences. And Atwood offers us no easy answers; it’s no strident feminist diatribe with all men as the enemy, and the deficiencies of our own society are as much under the microscope as the horrors of the Gileadean future.

In the end, for me the crux is the human desire for intimacy with another, and what becomes of that intimacy. Atwood has written a novel which will stand the test of time as well as or better than other dystopias of recent years, and which will not lose the power to make its readers think deeply about themselves as well as their world.

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