“Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”
THAT is, perhaps, one of the finest opening lines to a novel I have read, defining, coy, a come on, a play on words, a whole mystery set up, a whole biography to come…
The scary thing about Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale first published in 1985 was how well it foretold things to come. Like Isis brides, like a right wing elite taking over, like an environmental catastrophe:
“The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago, the few fish they have now are from fish farms and taste muddy”.
The Handmaid, of course, is about men taking over, about both sexes becoming infertile. About religion invoked as a power. The last we have seen – in the book version rather than the TV spin off – is Offred being loaded into the Van. To be set free or to be enrolled in further outrages…hedge your bets.
Now the prolific Atwood returns to the scene of one of her greatest fictions. She shares a style with that other great late 20th century titan Toni Morrison. They create a sense that they are there, they are in the now, their characters (or more personally I might say people) are living. Occasionally Offred would slip into story telling mode but only when she could hardly bear to talk of it herself, when her own story is too harsh to bear…but she commands her narrative, towers over it even if she is victim, down trodden, slave, baby machine. Her spirit lives. The Commander cannot command her even where he thinks he can do anything with her or anyone else around for that matter.
For the sequel we skip a generation. We have no idea of what happened after Offred got in the van. It is almost a YA narrative, after all the girls are still teenage and even the Aunts are not that old. Atwood has also been reading a few airport crimos. The story jogs along at a pace. It is staccato:
“…the remote was at the end of the table. I turned off the sound”
There is a level of texture in the writing that was in the first book which has not survived here, it is, as the title says Testaments, the kind of dry thing you might find in a file cabinet, curiously awful.
Here is a line from Handmaid’s tale:
“I’ve heard that rumour, passed on to me in soundless words, the lips hardly moving, as we stood in line outside, waiting for the store to open.”
Among the things lost in Gilead is some engaging prose.
In its place we get a girly bitchiness, a comic Bunty story about a bad day at the school.
“Becka said she wished she was ill, severely ill with something not only prolonged but catching…”
Bunty of course would be banned. Girls are not allowed to read. Not even the Bunty. It might upset sensibilities..
Try this for a bit of Girl’s Own dialogue:
“What can we do? I asked. “It sounds like there is nothing.”
“I am coming to that”, said Elijah. “As it turns out, there may be a chance. A faint hope, you could say.”
“Faint hopes are better than none,” said Ada.
Gilead is so regimented, the characters become self induced automatons, their main source of expression is being able to say how awful things happen. I am wishing we are back in the van with Offred and finding out what happened to her. She was just emerging from her cocoon like shell, from her iconic cassock.
It is pretty relentlessly bad. I don’t mean a bad book, rather an invitation back to childhood to a schoolgirls’ fantasy. All girls in a secret society within a secret society within a secret society as the trilogy of stories slowly start to wind around each other…
There is very little to grasp on to in terms of our sympathies. These child/women have no relationships, no real desires, no choices, just survival. There is none of the drama of the birth, none of the sense of sexual powers. It is an upstairs downstairs universe, the privileged, bratty, selfish or at least self centred, handmaids while downstairs are the minders and cooks the Marthas who seem to be the source of all rumours and knowledge. The Cammanders, the Wives, the Aunts sail through the story symobolically potent but detached. I might have liked a bit more Martha and little less handmaid but who these Marthas sleep with at night or why or where is not revealed. The deeply ingrained spite of the women to each other is almost repetitive. The men are almost non-existent except in their vague brutality when they turn up as a guard to yank the women off somewhere. Their most expressive gesture is an (imagined) lustful glance.
Of course there is an underlining, if trite, theme that writing itself will be the girls’ salvation but otherwise the intellectual structures of Gilhead are as much a mystery to its enslaved citizens as to the reader.
A word about the excellent production values and the brilliant illustrations from Noma Bar which aggrandize this first edition. The question is: did the Handmaid’s deserve a sequel? Atwood says her readers were asking for one. So is it a match for the first book? Not really. Do you want to read it? Probably. Should it win the Booker Prize, well not compared to Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay but he did not make the short list. Really? How come?