The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, Margaret - The Testaments

In March, Hubby and I went away for a week’s skiing holiday with friends, as we normally do.  We went to Tignes, France, which links with Val D’Isere to form the large Espace Killy ski area. It was a good week: skiing, eating, drinking, pub quiz (we won), swimming/relaxing in a pool and spa, the normal ski-holiday stuff.

The day after we flew home the French authorities closed all ski resorts, bars and restaurants.  Four days after that, the UK government also closed all restaurants, bars, theatres, and cinemas; three days later again, all non-essential shops were closed and legally enforceable “stay at home” provisions put in place. In the space of only 10 days, life veered from completely normal (albeit with more frequent hand-washing) to almost completely locked down.

Throughout Europe, nation States get proscriptive about citizens’ daily lives in a way that would have been unimaginable in the “free” world only a few weeks earlier.  Borders are closed, flights suspended. Basic provisions begin disappearing from supermarket shelves: eggs, rice, toilet rolls, hand sanitiser. Meeting up with anyone who is not part of your household is banned, in the name of “social distancing”.  A text message from GOV.UK reads – New rules in force now: you must stay at home.

If life just now seems to be mirroring dystopian fiction, then The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, is dystopian fiction mirroring life – every event in the novel, we’re told, has a precedent in human history.

The Testaments was joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize (with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which I’ll review my next blog post). At the time of the award, Atwood became the oldest ever winner and one of the few authors to win twice, having previously won in 2000 with The Blind Assassin.

The Testaments is the sequel to Atwood’s award-winning The Handmaid’s Tale, itself shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1985 and recently made into an award-winning TV series starring the excellent Elizabeth Moss.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a patriarchal, Christian fundamentalist, totalitarian regime that establishes itself in America, called the state of Gilead.  The Testaments imagines how Gilead falls.

Thirty-four years is a long time to wait for a sequel.  And since the TV series, the handmaid’s “uniform” from the original novel has been donned by women on pro-choice marches in America, Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, and the UK, subverting the symbolism in the book to send a clear message: our bodies are our own; we will not be subjugated.  So The Testaments was widely anticipated and heavily hyped.  No pressure.

Fortunately, The Testaments lives up to the hype. (But Atwood is one of my favourite authors so I might be a tad biased.) As well as being a fantastic story-teller, there is a lovely rhythm to Atwood’s prose-writing that makes this novel a deceptively easy read – deceptively because each sentence is beautifully crafted, each word carefully chosen. Atwood makes language work for her and work hard.

Take the first two sentences of the opening chapter: “Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”  Petrified refers to the stone of the statue.  It also means being too frightened to move.  So while the ‘I’ is contemplating her statue, there is also an intimation of jeopardy. This, in turn, gives the phrase “dead people” greater force. She has been given a statue not while alive but while “still” alive. Is she already foreseeing her own demise? We all die, of course, but “petrified” echoes, suggestive of something more sinister.

The statue could also symbolise the ossification of the narrator’s life – there is certainly a sense more of detachment, than of pride. As she is an esteemed person this might indicate, by extension, that the body or society celebrating her is also stagnating.  That’s a lot of potential meaning to pack into two small sentences!

Actually, it’s the final sentence of first chapter that seems to speak directly to me in this strange, Corona-virus-gripped present. It echoes a recent speech by PM Boris Johnson. “Wait…it will get worse.” (Shortly afterwards that speech seemed prophetic, not least for the PM, as he was taken into intensive care.)

Perhaps the real take-away message of The Testaments is that we should never take normal for granted.

Rating: *** Highly recommended

PS You should read The Handmaid’s Tale (or at least watch the first TV series) before reading The Testaments.

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