More tales from Gilead but few answers

The Testaments

By Margaret Atwood

Published by Chatto & Windus, 2019, £20

Reviewed by Helen Pattison

The Testaments won’t disappoint Margaret Atwood fans, who were left with a cliff-hanger at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Loose ends are tied up and we get a deeper look at some character backgrounds, such as Aunt Lydia’s.

The Handmaid’s Tale was originally published in the 1980s and outlined a dystopian future, the growth of an authoritarian regime. Wide ranging attacks are imposed on women, essentially making them second-class citizens in the new society called Gilead, in present-day USA, leaving them unable to have bank accounts, or learn to read or write. A falling birth rate also sees the creation of handmaids, an extremely oppressed section of women forced through rape to help the infertile elite have children.

The Handmaid’s Tale was revived as a TV series in 2017 against the backdrop of ten years of economic crisis that has seen the growth of right-wing populism, and has included attacks on women’s rights, as well as struggles against sexism. Huge demonstrations have taken place in the last few years, such as those held against Donald Trump’s election. In Poland, a battle has raged against attacks on abortion rights.

While Britain has been quieter, the sickening ‘rape clause’ was added to the benefits system. This capped child tax credits at two children unless women could prove the child was the result of rape, a vile part of the government’s austerity measures. On many of the global protests, some women have dressed as Atwood’s handmaids, stark imagery against the attacks.

Even since the revival of interest in The Handmaid’s Tale, however, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro has been elected president in Brazil, with women’s rights there now under attack. Given the possibility of losing the gains made by women to right-wing populist governments, Handmaid’s Tale fans will want to know: is it possible for a Gilead-style regime to take hold? If it did, how could such a regime be overturned? And how can right-wing, sexist politicians, and sexist ideas in society today, be defeated?

Obviously, one fictional book cannot give answers to all these questions. But some will have read The Testaments expecting, at least, to be told how Gilead fell. There is not much extra information on this, however, except the further exposure of the cracks within the regime. These are revealed by the actions of the characters and through divulging the level of corruption in Gilead.

In both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments accounts of the rise and fall of Gilead are not given much detail or attention. The impacts of climate change, floods, fires and earthquakes, leading to droughts and water shortages, nuclear explosions, an economic downturn and rising joblessness, are all listed as causing huge anger in society. One character pinpoints the “absence of viable remedies” to these crises as one of the reasons why people were willing to allow drastic attacks on rights and living standards.

This does not marry with the all-sided picture we actually see today. The potential for powerful movements against inequality and oppression exists, even if it is not always immediately realised. The working class has not been defeated on a mass scale, as it had been in the past, in order, for instance, for fascism to come to power.

In fact, the opposite has happened. In response to right-wing populism, increased oppression, and attacks on working-class people’s living conditions and rights, huge protests have taken place, including in some instances strikes. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character, June, at least mentions the large protests, strikes and a movement of opposition – ultimately, defeated – to the rise of Gilead. In The Testaments, on the other hand, Aunt Lydia emphasises that it was the “the educated” who led the opposition and were, therefore, the first to be crushed and eradicated.

Describing the rounding up of professional women, doctors, lawyers and judges after the suspension of the constitution, Aunt Lydia concludes that no force subsequently existed to lead resistance. Workers’ organisations – trade unions and political parties – and the debates that would have inevitably taken place within them on how to fight the rise of Gilead, don’t get a look-in. The only mention of any organised force against Gilead is Mayday, a guerrilla-style resistance that forms the underground network helping to smuggle people out of the country. By the time Aunt Lydia concludes that resistance in some form was needed against the regime, she believed it was too late.

When the constitution is suspended under the cover of responding to potential threats of terrorism, it is actually the new regime taking power. It uses existing legal powers to close the courts and impose a provisional government. It also takes the opportunity to ban women from accessing their own money without the permission of a male relative. In both books, the characters believe that the constitution would protect them, giving them legal rights and equality in law. But many working-class, poor and black Americans do not share this same feeling of being protected by the state and constitution!

Other complicated questions are also dealt with, even if the book does not give all the answers. The main focus of The Testaments is how Aunt Lydia went from being a woman who defended women’s rights, to one who imposed oppression on behalf of the Gilead regime.

Other questions are also raised. For example, how Canada still has a relatively normal trading relationship with the Gilead regime, with an operational border between the two countries. For the Canada of the novel to condemn the treatment of women in Gilead but maintain trade relations in the pursuit of profit, exposes the limitations of capitalist politicians and governments in fighting genuinely for the rights of women.

Gilead supporters find travel between Canada and Gilead easy, despite the controls in place, thanks to people who ‘support them’ in positions of power within the Canadian government. They are able to smuggle people into Gilead, despite the fact that this is not allowed. In some ways, it is reminiscent of times in history when governments have condemned the actions of other countries on the surface while trade and the pursuit of profit have continued like normal. Many will think of the arms trade today or the contracts that continued to be made between British and German companies after the Nazis took power.

Overall, The Testaments is a really interesting book, posing more questions than it answers. It is easy to read and hard to put down. But it isn’t a programme for action. The fact it was so highly anticipated shows the enthusiasm for answers to the burning question of how to defeat right-wing populism. This is the job of socialists, armed with a programme to defeat not just the current attacks on women’s rights, not only to defend the gains that have been won by and for women, but to fight for a socialist world that ends all forms of oppression forever.