It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.
The book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.
Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.
But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.
What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.
Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.
And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.
I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!