THUS WROTE THE ORACLE
Fame is Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage. This stuff is just a media pimple.’ That was the voice of painter Elaine Risley from Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, when an interviewer asked how she handled fame. Risley’s life and style echoed the author’s own, wry even then about aging into eminence. Three decades and a dozen books later, Atwood has far outstripped Elizabeth Taylor’s cleavage.
Her best-known work is The Handmaid’s Tale, set in Gilead (once the northeastern US), where child-bearing women have been separated from their offspring, declared a national resource and commandeered by its rulers. It was written in 1985, as Reaganites systematically battered reproductive rights. There was a film, a radio series and an opera, but with the Hulu television series, red robes spilled out of fiction and into the streets and courthouses. Even if the far right hadn’t seeped like glyphosate into our lands and laws, the struggles of Offred and her fellow handmaids would have resonated with most women today. Atwood famously said there was nothing in her novel that hadn’t already happened somewhere in the world. The same is true of The Testaments, as the Oracle of Toronto resumes her tale.
In the first testament, the steely Aunt Lydia describes how she came to train the first generation of Gilead’s handmaids. She writes of her parleys with the Commanders, her deals, her ideals, her larger plan. The second testament is that of young Agnes, taken from her ‘unfit’ mother and brought up by a Commander’s wife. She is one of those girls who, dressed in white frocks, shaped in a caste-bound society and accepting their destiny as wives and mothers, were supposed to find life easier than feminists ever could. They are precious only as chattel, bartered in their teens for status and power, and consumed by old men. The third testament is from Daisy, smuggled out of Gilead as an infant, brought up in Canada and recruited to re-enter Gilead as a spy for the resistance.
Atwood’s writing is naturally best as Aunt Lydia’s voice, sarcastic and far-seeing. The Aunts define the culture of Gilead’s women—whether Handmaids, Wives, Marthas or Econowives. They design the uniforms, compose the chants and punish the guilty. They are women policing women and it is their minds we must penetrate.
The Testaments rounds out the masterwork, though it lacks the suffocating oppression of its precursor. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale was isolated, beginning to forget, grieving her lost husband and child, stifled in her red robe and white blinders, and forbidden to read or to know. We pieced together her tale from fragments sighted at the edges of our vision. The Testaments contains many voices and stories. And where there are many women, we may hope for conspiracy, rebellion and escape. Has the Oracle gone soft in her 80th year? Or, as we step up, into the darkness within, does she stretch out a compassionate hand? ■
THE TESTAMENTS Margaret Atwood CHATTO & WINDUS `799;419 pages