Review: Marina Warner on Margaret Atwood
Twisting fairy stories has been a feminist stratagem ever since Anne Sexton wrote her sequence of barbed, hurt poems, Transformations, back in 1971; Margaret Atwood, both in her fiction and poetry, has likewise mined myth and fairy tale, mostly in a parodic and contrary spirit. The Penelopiad reworked the closing books of the Odyssey, while before that, in The Robber Bride, Atwood repossessed one of the Grimm’s cruelest and most satisfactory stories of a woman’s revenge. The merciless tone of many fairy stories suits her voice. “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” she likes to quote, and in her new book The Testaments, she spreads a lavish feast of cold cuts, served up by a marvelous monster, Aunt Lydia. Whereas in classic fairy tales, the characters have no depth, The Testaments, like its predecessor The Handmaid’s Tale, takes the form of witness statements, making us privy to the thoughts of its three narrators: Lydia, and two younger women, Agnes Jemina and Daisy, who, like lost princesses in Shakespeare’s romances, will discover they are not who they thought they were.
We first met Aunt Lydia through the eyes of Offred, the heroine of The Handmaid’s Tale: Lydia there was the wicked queen/evil stepmother of the patriarchal theocracy of Gilead where, armed with a cattle prod, she crushed and trained her younger female charges. In this sequel, she emerges as deep, wily, and wise, a far-seeing Crone, the persona whom Atwood’s inspiration, Ursula LeGuin, called for women to adopt in l976. We become privy to Aunt Lydia’s story: she was a judge in family courts but, beaten and terrorized, avoided extermination by collaborating and proposing a separate sphere for women, under her control: “The regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten.” By contrast, the younger women’s testimonies sometimes arouse their author’s sympathies, and through Lydia, in many ways an alter ego, she brings about some sweet, choking moments of recognition: foundlings are found again, families reunited, and borders open. Now and then Atwood’s wit lights up the prevailing misery: would-be Aunts, like novices in a convent, choose their names from coveted products no longer available in Gilead (e.g. Ivory, as in soap; and Immortelle).
The Handmaid’s Tale eerily warned of a future that threatens more closely now, as hard-won rights—and not only for women—are attacked. Atwood has said that nothing in the new book is invented, and The Testaments’ dark vision does not need to call on her considerable prophetic powers as The Handmaid’s Tale did. “Rotting” Gilead here clearly draws on the harsh conditions in failing Soviet regimes; its detention centers and punishment chambers are modeled on measures used today against migrants; and its policies are grounded in the same paranoia and hostilities stoked up all around us today. Climate change, a long-running concern of Atwood’s, ultimately lies at the root of these conflicts: fertility, caused by a toxic environment, is the chief stake in the Gilead dystopia, and Atwood brilliantly aligns Gilead’s state machine with real-life actions taken against those driven from their countries by drought, flood, and famine.
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Atwood’s feminism has always been subtle and she remains too wise—too cynical?—to be a fervent supporter of any movement; through The Testaments’ many female characters, she explores with a novelist’s complexity the absence of easy solutions to sharp questions about equality between men and women. Her male characters remain shadowy, stock villains: a pedophile dentist, a Bluebeard Commander. In many ways Gilead has become a gynocracy, in which women enforce horrific measures on other—younger—women’s bodies. Atwood’s Gilead satirizes features of earth-mother New-Age feminism: women in charge, birthing rituals, idealized “Nature,” and women-only enclaves, rife with gossip and slander, are all delicately and cattily caught between the author’s pincers. The crucial connection between Atwood and the metoo uprising lies here: that changing sexual practices can hold the key to political renewal or increased oppression.
Towards the close, The Testaments turns into a spy-thriller cum girls’-own-adventure. It is stirring stuff, vintage storytelling, but ultimately the young heroines’ pluck and resilience come to seem implausible. Nor are the first-person voices of their testimonies distinct enough; they ask to be taken at face value, and lack self-deception or irony—the direct conventions of film realism have overruled more literary craft. Yet, with the upbeat denouement—a classic fairy-tale ending—Atwood, our Lady Oracle, makes a promise to us that, at this time of public turmoil and depravity, change is coming, and that is the deep function of a fairy tale, to hold out a belief in change, and a possible end to injustice.
Marina Warner is a writer of fiction, criticism and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myth, symbols, and fairy tales, most recently Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists.
Dovetailing nicely with our review, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments just won the English Booker Prize, alongside Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which tells the stories of twelve characters, mostly black, women, and British. If you were wondering if it’s possible for two people to win such a prize you’re not alone. Reportedly the jury had to insist three times to Booker officials that they had decided on two winners, before the bosses relented. Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation (which awards the US National Book Awards), tweeted “Do not get any ideas from this tie.” Meanwhile in other double wins, the writers’ organization PEN America broke precedent and released a letter of protest at the Swedish Academy’s selection of Peter Handke for one of the two Nobel Prizes it gave out last week, on account of his support for nationalist violence in the Yugoslav wars. A few weeks earlier, a jury in Germany revoked their awarding of the Nellie Sachs Award, for a writer who “promotes tolerance and reconciliation,” to British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie, on account of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction movement against Israel. Penguin announced that it will release a memoir by Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, co-written with her parents and sister, in 2020. Poet-rocker Patti Smith, meanwhile, finds her new memoir, in which she somehow spends a year of quiet wandering reflection in this noisy country of ours, on the IndieBound nonfiction bestseller list, next to much louder characters.
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