Some years ago Margaret Atwood came to Canberra and she and I had a conversation, facilitated by Andrea Stretton. She was publicising Oryx and Crake. My new book was The Point. She'd read it, and claimed to see some similarities. She displayed habits that I have since observed in the interviews for her latest work: she simply does not answer any questions about the book. She is entirely charming about it but just doesn't do it. This was quite hard for Andrea and me, since there was a theme we were supposed to be discussing. We did our best. We told ourselves that she was tired from her book tour, something like seven cities in six days.
The best bit came with the questions. What sort of noise does a loon make? a woman asked. And Margaret made a whole series of loon calls, wonderfully musical and most apposite to the book. The audience was delighted.
And I have to say I am absolutely sympathetic with her reluctance; her point is that she has written the book, you have it to read, no need to say anything more about it. And I am going to follow her example in this review and not talk about what it's about. Never has a book been more heralded, anyway. It's news.
One of the things she does say is that everything has happened, sometime, somewhere. She hasn't made anything up. This is a terrifying premise, but I believe it. It helps that I am about the same age, so have lived through much the same things. Sometimes they are a momentary allusion, for instance when Aunt Lydia, the fearsome monster from The Handmaid's Tale, writes about her introduction into the puritan theocracy that becomes Gilead. She is incarcerated in a stadium with no food or lavatories and just that image recalls the Velodrome d'Hiver where the French kept a vast number of Jews before sending the survivors to concentration camps. Here the people locked up are mainly educated women; if they survive certain tortures they are allowed to create Gilead. This is where Aunt Lydia comes from. And it's a theme that runs through the book and has become a mantra for our time: educate girls and you change the fate of humanity. Not in Gilead; only the Aunts are allowed to read and write, all other women are considered to have brains too weak.
This is why reactionary white men think they should control women's bodies, the Republicans of the GOP in current America, or the Commanders of Gilead. Both of course anti-abortion, but the Republicans do not care about the resulting babies and the Commanders do.
The aims of Gilead were pure and noble, but they were subverted and sullied. But at the same time as they were pure and noble they were a very bad idea.
And there's another point. Some things in Gilead we consider particularly shocking, like the Handmaidens being obliged to go by the names of their masters, as in Ofkyle. Yet, in the year I got married, 1963, I went to a reception at the French Embassy. I and two friends had our photograph taken by the Sunday Telegraph. The caption says: Mrs Graham Halligan, Mrs James Grieve, Mrs Helmut Loofs. Our identities denied, just like the Handmaidens'. We look like children, as the Commanders preferred their wives.
History does not repeat itself, one of Atwood's characters says, but it rhymes.
Atwood's superb plotting, her clever deployment of suspense, keep us turning the pages. There are three narrators, two girls who are the next generation in Gilead and Aunt Julia. The reason the book is called The Testaments. Aunt Julia is formal, even a bit portentous, as well as wry and acerbic, particularly in her wit. 'Pen is envy', she says, talking about girls learning to write.
All three have distinctive voices and as soon as we start reading each segment we are given clues as to whose it is. The girls are Aunts-in-waiting, which is why they are literate. It soon becomes apparent that there is a mole in Gilead, and not too difficult to work out who it is. And nothing but rejoicing in the society's fall; Gilead pure was not attractive but now it is putrid with corruption it stinks to high heaven as an acolyte might say.
Reading The Testaments, the plot is exciting, the story telling a pleasure, but what is really addictive is the language. Atwood is one of the great mistresses of English prose. It is simple, pellucid, not very metaphorical, the perfect tool for her purpose.
I am tired of books being praised in ignorance of the clumsiness of their prose. And one of the things the book is about is language. There is the frightening parroting of the jargon of totalitarianism, most recently brought to attention by our Mr Abbott in Hungary. There is the echoing of the mighty cadences of the Bible. And the rhythms of Methodist hymns in those the Aunts write for the Pearl Girls.
The book is a wonderful gift.
- Marion Halligan is a Canberra author. Her most recent novel is Goodbye Sweetheart.
- The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. Penguin. $42.99.