Book review – “The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood

I launched my 2020 Facebook Reading Challenge earlier this week and the theme for January was one of the biggest books of the last decade. The book I chose was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl a huge bestseller published in 2014, but Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, published just a few months ago, could easily go down as one of the books of the decade too. Being at the ‘literary’ rather than the ‘popular’ end of the market means it will not likely match the 20 million sales worldwide that Flynn’s novel enjoyed, but it was the most anticipated book I can remember in a very long while, its publication the most advertised, was immediately serialised on the BBC in the UK, won the Booker Prize (jointly with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other) and will definitely be dramatized at some point.

The Testaments imgIt is truly a groundbreaking novel, but curiously, in my view, less in its own right than as an extension, a continuation of, the work started with the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. What is also partly so extraordinary about The Testaments is how relevant its story remains over thirty years on from The Handmaid’s Tale. In spite of equality legislation, human rights legislation, more women in positions of power and authority, we still have world leaders able to express their misogyny openly and with impunity, and violence against women and girls seems as rife as ever. Atwood is Canadian, but her novel is a dystopian vision set in the United States, where, in the last year, we have seen the erosion of women’s reproductive and therefore health rights in some states and the substantial threat of more to come. This novel seems so urgent and necessary.

The Testaments is written from the perspectives of three women and is presented as an account of their experiences in what appears to be a declining Gilead. Atwood’s brilliant authorial technique of presenting the work as part of research seminars at the Symposium of Gileadian Studies (as she did with The Handmaid’s Tale, where Offred’s story was gleaned from a series of tape recordings discovered in an old property) means that we have separate accounts from three individuals. The opening ‘testament’ is from Aunt Lydia, the monstrous matriarchal figure in charge of the handmaids, whom we know well from the earlier book. Her power is at its peak and we learn that she know has a statue at Ardua Hall, the training centre for Gilead’s aunts. We learn more about her early career as a judge and how she came to be recruited to the army of aunts and rose to the top.

The second ‘witness’ is Agnes, the ‘child’ of one of the leading Commanders in Gilead and his first wife, Tabitha. Agnes, of course, is not their full biological child; as we know from the earlier novel, the role of the handmaids was simply as a gestational vehicle to produce offspring for the higher orders in Gilead. Nevertheless, Agnes was loved by her adoptive mother Tabitha, until the latter died of cancer. Commander Kyle’s new wife is unhappy with the presence of her step-daughter and quickly arranges for her to be married off. Unhappy with the choices offered, however, Agnes asks to be admitted to Ardua Hall to train as an aunt. She goes there along with some of her schoolfriends.

The final witness is Daisy, a feisty sixteen year-old living in Canada. Her parents, Neil and Melanie, run a charity shop and they are all well aware of events in nearby Gilead, not least because they are taught at school about their near-neighbour, about refugees from that state, about the talismanic significance of ‘Baby Nicole’, the child smuggled out of Gilead many years earlier by a handmaid and whom the authorities desperately want to find, and they see daily the so-called ‘Pearl Girls’, Gileadian missionary women whose role is to recruit young women to their cause. When Daisy’s parents are brutally killed by a car-bomb, Gileadian terrorism is suspected and Daisy is taken into hiding. Daisy is told that she is in fact the missing Baby Nicole and is asked to enter Gilead undercover, as a prospective recruit, to connect with an outsider there and help undermine the state.

Thus the scene is set for a gripping tale. At first, I thought it could not possibly be as jaw-dropping, or the execution of literary intent as magnificent, as The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read in anticipation of the publication of The Testaments, but I’m happy to say it is, but in a very different way. If anything, I would say the plot is stronger.

Margaret Atwood
Photo from http://www.CurtisBrown.co.uk

Margaret Atwood is now 80 years old. After The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s, she has published classics in every decade – Alias Grace in 1996, The Blind Assassin in 2000 (my personal favourite), Oryx and Crake in 2003, Hag-Seed in 2016, to name but a few – will this woman ever peak?! I hope not.

Highly recommended, perhaps essential reading.

Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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