India Today - - BOOKS - —Latha Anan­thara­man

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

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