It is difficult to sanitise Atwood’s new venture. In fact, it is difficult to put into words at all the violence of the novel. One finds oneself much more in the world of 1980s radical feminism than our own while reading Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: The Testaments.
Atwood begins her new polemic recounting the most shocking symbols of the world of Gilead: red gowns for menstruation and childbirth, eggs for fertility, even the ‘moss has sprouted in my damper crevices’ is uncomfortably sexual. In her controversial review of the book in The Spectator, Ruth Scurr argues that the intensity of Atwood’s vision makes it fundamentally incomparable to the analogue that many commentators (especially since the populism of Bruce Miller’s TV adaptation) have given it: Trump’s America.
While, as with most things written in The Spectator, one ought to take it with a pinch of salt, Scurr’s review is incisive and prescient. Scurr points to communities all over the world in which women are denied the right to choose what they wear, forced to have sex and unable to own money. While I have no time for the lazy shot against Islam which Scurr falls into, I am nonetheless convinced that The Testaments is a radically feminist book. It is not, and should not be seen as populist.
Atwood brings a lifetime of experience to bear on this palimpsestic novel, even writing in the novel: “As they say, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” She arranges independent ‘testimonies’ of the women of Gilead alongside each other and asks the reader to join the dots. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, it is hard to attach oneself to a character like Offred; Atwood instead makes the reader into a spy, gleaning unconnected and disparate pieces of information.
I think there is a strong argument to be made that this formal technique collides Atwood’s 1980s deliberate style of feminism (that is, arguments over sexual liberation and the physical subjugation of women) with a timbre more common in 2019 (an intersectional account of the varying lives of women and their interaction with patriarchy and capitalism). The real strength of Atwood’s New Testament (if you’ll excuse the obvious pun) is to resist a temptation to either mollify or intensify the suffering of her characters in the light of its predecessor’s success. Instead she suspends them in the ether of Gilead’s mysticism, somewhere between relatable to the suffering of women in the 21st-century West and a dramatic fiction which we find repellent. To quote from the book itself: “You take the first step, and to save yourself from the consequences, you take the next one. In times like ours, there are only two directions: up or plummet.” I think we are right to be fascinated by the media storm around Atwood’s work. At the launch of The Testaments, staff dressed in red robes as if to say that this is a fantasy world for fancy dress. Atwood’s critique of capitalism is worryingly reflexive.
Returning to my earlier theme, I find the brutality of Atwood’s collection of stories, for that is what it really is, refreshing. She refuses to play a part in a feminism of pacification, usually heard from a floundering politician rather than an activist who believes in its importance. It is worth remembering that in 2016, only 7% of the UK population said they would describe themselves as feminists when asked. If feminism is as radical as Atwood purports, it would be disingenuous for many more to say they come anywhere close.