The Testaments—Margaret Atwood

[I read this 2019 follow-up novel in three parts. I wrote about each part before reading on, so I never knew what would be coming next.]

25 September 2019
Sections 1-8—Lydia, Witness A (Agnes), Lydia, Witness B, Lydia, Agnes, Lydia, Witness B, Lydia
Lydia we know about from The Handmaid’s Tale, and she is writing her ‘holograph’ some years after the events of that novel. (I wrote about it here.) Witness A, Agnes, is a girl living in Gilead—she doesn’t reach puberty until the point I’ve just reached—and she might well turn out to be the one taken from Offred after the family’s failed attempt to reach Canada after the coup. Witness B is another girl, a little older and living in Toronto. She’s just found out that she is ‘Baby Nicole’, the poster-girl, literally, of the Mayday escape network. The people she thought were her parents had simply agreed to look after her after she arrived as a baby from Gilead, but they had become a family. Now, on 1st May—her sixteenth birthday, she thinks—they have been killed by a car-bomb planted by Gilead agents. The girl is being told all this as her section ends.

This is the world of The Handmaid’s Tale some years later, and we recognise most things about it. But the style of this novel is different. Instead of a single narrator unhurriedly revealing this new world and coming to terms with its realities, we have three narrators, and much more happens in every section. This is the style of the Maddaddam trilogy: each character has a lot to get through in the space allotted. The Handmaid’s Tale is a slow burn, and I remember most of the action of the first hundred pages or so seeming to take place inside Offred’s head. In the first 130 pages of this novel we’ve already had that deadly car-bomb, the death of the Gilead girl’s own mother and replacement by an uncaring stepmother, the death of a handmaid in childbirth—sacrificed, for added villainy points, by the (male) doctor in order to save the baby’s life—a man in a position of trust forcing the innocent Gilead girl to masturbate him, and a mass execution, told by Lydia as she describes the first days after her imprisonment following the coup….

But this is still a Margaret Atwood novel, so these are flesh-and-blood human beings—there’s a lot of blood, especially in the mindset of the body-obsessed Gilead school and its hapless pupils—and their interactions with other characters seem completely real. From the first chapter, Lydia has her own personal agenda, focused as she is on surviving as long as she can, and determined to take a lot of other people with her if she falls out of favour. She’s already survived three purges, but knows how fortunes change. Meanwhile…

…the two girls, in their very different worlds, are also having to deal with real life among peers who aren’t always friendly. The school in Gilead, like the society itself, is cruelly hierarchical. At first, Witness A, Agnes, is sought out by other girls because of her father’s high-status position. They have three Marthas, the servants we first met in the earlier novel, which is as good as it gets…. But things change. Like Lydia, Agnes is writing about an earlier time, and she describes how things slowly started going wrong for her. First with the death of her genuinely loving adopted mother, then with the death in childbirth of her stepmother’s handmaid. The change in how the girls treat her, some of it based on a culture of superstition at least as strong as anything the Bible teaches them, belies the pious slogans they all mouth. They are like girls anywhere.

Readers of the earlier novel are used to Atwood’s worldly appraisal of how women behave. It’s not that she has it in for her own gender—both novels are far more anti-male, or anti-Patriarchy, which is nearly the same thing here—but she isn’t going to pretend. And I think it’s much more than that. People are people, and whatever the supposedly high-minded philosophies and beliefs of a society, ordinary human behaviour will out. I suspect that in this novel, in a way that Atwood wasn’t trying to bring out fully in The Handmaid’s Tale, she intends to show that this is why they fail. Lydia’s story-arc is going to be very much tending towards this, I think—otherwise why would Atwood keep having her mention how much dirt she has on just about anybody she’s ever had dealings with in Gilead? Her secret memoir, called the ‘Ardua Holograph’ in the section titles, is her insurance policy. (Ardua Hall is the women’s enclave, part of a former university campus, that Lydia has gradually turned into a Kremlin-like power base. She’s safe from the prying eyes of men, including anybody in the regime’s inner circle.)

While I’m with Lydia…. She is the Aunt in The Handmaid’s Tale who is at the head of the body of women facilitating the regime’s work. Now she is a national figure, in as powerful a position as any woman—but pragmatic about letting Commander Judd, her male boss, take all the credit for her ideas. In her memoir, she is methodically outlining for us the transformation of her life from that of a judge in a family court before the coup. Women in high-status professions were rounded up and, at the point we’ve reached, there seems to be a sorting process under way. In the stadium where they have already been kept for 24 hours in filthy conditions—shades of the Pinochet coup in Chile—twenty have been summarily executed on the sports field. Readers who know the earlier novel also know that Lydia herself will go on to conduct show executions….

What we are reading is the story of how some people will do whatever is necessary when circumstances change. Having been just the kind of female professional to be purged, we don’t know yet how she managed her transformation, and to outlive most of the men then in positions of power. I suspect it won’t be pretty. But there’s no doubt that she’ll justify her own actions every step of the way. The tone of everything she writes, about every single woman she works with as well as the men, is at best acerbic and at worst venomous. Even the sculptor who carved the statue of her, the one Lydia herself unveils at the opening of the novel, is damned with the faintest of praise. At least, she tells us, the statue hasn’t been given the sculptor’s trademark hyperthyroid-looking eyes.

There are two time-lines in Lydia’s narrative, one covering the back-story of her survival of the coup—and soon, no doubt, her rise to the top of the brigade of Aunts—and the present day, years later. (Speaking of the Aunts… I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she invented the darkly ironic name—’Aunt’ conveying just the right level of homely good sense, domestic enough to be no threat to the Patriarchy.) She is writing her memoir at the same time as the events in Canada. The management of the ‘Pearl Girls’, purported missionaries into Canada, and he car bomb and its aftermath, both feature in her holograph. Shortly after Witness B’s appalled account of the car bomb, Lydia is recounting the spin being put on the bomb’s success by different interested parties in Gilead. The Pearl Girls had been keeping a close watch on the girl’s supposed parents before their violent deaths….

I can imagine Atwood loving getting inside the mind of a ruthless career politician like Lydia. She’s a female Richard III—and we all know what happened to him in the end. He tried to offer his kingdom in exchange for his escape. Maybe Lydia’s offer of her silence will bring her more success. I’m tempted to trawl through her sections for venomous little pearls, but…

…I should talk about Agnes in Gilead and Witness B in Canada. Agnes reaches puberty during the second of the sections she narrates—it’s her budding breasts that tempt the man who sexually abuses her, the dentist father of another girl at the school. The Aunts force-feed them with a strange mixture, part Bible, part Victorian-style prudery—they are ‘precious flowers’ to be saved from the unstoppable lusts of men—and part explicit accounts of the realities of womanhood, including videos of childbirth that give out girl nightmares. She learns nothing useful, of course—girls aren’t supposed to learn anything—and she has learnt nothing about her origins from the fairy-tale version her adopted mother used to tell her. She’s being prepared for the life of an elite Wife, as hidebound as her life in school. She is writing from about it all from some time further still in the future, so it is a more adult Agnes who offers us insights into a state of affairs which, if I’m reading this correctly, is not to last. (We know from A Handmaid’s Tale that they won’t. But we don’t know how the downfall comes.)

Witness B, the former Baby Nicole…. Have I said enough? Her life as Daisy, daughter of liberal-minded Canadian parents never feels quite normal to her. She wonders why they are so protective of her, wonders why she has to be driven to her school rather than take the bus, wonders who the other people in their lives are. Who is the woman who is given almost free rein to take whatever piles of assorted clothes she likes from their second-hand clothes store? After the bomb, it’s Ada, a friend of her parents’ that she had been unsure about, who saves her. She still doesn’t really trust her as she takes her to a safe house, gets her clothes that had originally been in her parents’ store in order to provide her with a new look, finds her somewhere to sleep…. And then comes the truth, that this is not her birthday, that she isn’t Daisy but Baby Nicole, that—what? That all her old certainties were based on necessary falsehoods.

So. Two adolescent girls in different worlds, both trying to come to terms with realities they had no idea of. And it’s only just occurred to me that the one who suffers sexually at the hands of a man is the one in which she is an over-protected flower. And she knows in her bones—or in her blood, perhaps—that there is no way that she could tell anybody about it. In other words, I suppose, she has learnt something—about the harsh realities of women’s lives in Gilead.

29 September
Sections 10-17—Agnes, Lydia, Witness B, Lydia, Agnes, Lydia, B, Lydia
Atwood keeps to the same format, a few caustic pages from Lydia interleaved with alternating sections of a few chapters each from the other two. Lydia probably gets fewer pages than either of the others overall, but she is the real driver of the novel. Atwood must be having a great time getting inside the mind of her Machiavellian creation, and it’s where there’s the most biting satire. I haven’t changed my mind about a Richard III-style persona. Like him, she revels in her own dark doings and, like him, she can be almost pantomime-villain about it. The tearful state of two other characters in one of her recordings is ‘enough to melt the hardest heart. It almost melted mine.’ Or she’s Francis Urquhart/Frank Underwood in House of Cards, addressing us—‘my dear reader’—to take us through the next part of her strategy. And like them, like Richard, she is perfectly secure about how second-rate everything and everybody is. All she needs to do in order to survive is outwit them, keep—as she tells us explicitly—one, or preferably two, steps ahead.

The difference is that her real motivation has little to do with ambition. She’s at the top already, or as close to the top as any woman can be in Gilead. No, what she wants is simply to survive—or, if she can’t, to take her revenge on the system that destroyed her former life. Of course, it destroyed the lives of millions of others too, especially women, but she never expresses any concern for them. Her grudge against the new order of things is entirely personal—which is what makes her such an interesting case. She is utterly contemptuous of every single thing about the regime, but she has spent years doing its work. It trusts her, inasmuch as it trusts anyone, so she knows she has outsmarted it. That, it seems, will have to do—she can’t destroy it without destroying herself, surely? But who knows? Maybe she feels she’ll be ready to go one day, and then she can light the fuse on whatever explosive information she has that will bring Gilead down.

We see how she operates when she finds out that Aunt Vidala is trying to discredit her. She is amazed: ‘My reader, I have a surprise for you. It was also a surprise for me.’ She has discovered that it is Vidala placing the votive offerings at the feet of her statue in order to sow the seed of suspicion that Lydia is condoning such idolatry. She plays a long game—we don’t know the outcome yet—and enlists the help of another Aunt in the process. What she asks Aunt Elizabeth to do has nothing to do with Vidala and the offerings—it is to give Elizabeth the chance to do a good deed, but by perjuring herself. She is to accuse the paedophile dentist we know about of sexual assault, supposedly in order to get him punished for crimes he would otherwise get away with, as nobody would ever believe one of his victims. (This is also part of another story-thread, and I’ll come back to that.)

Lydia has no interest in the dentist, although she isn’t averse to a pervert suffering a hideous death. Elizabeth herself can oversee the ‘particicution’—a participatory execution in which, as we saw in The Handmaid’s Tale, handmaids kick and beat a sex-criminal to death. What Lydia wants is something she can threaten to use against Elizabeth if she doesn’t do her bidding: Lydia had filmed the scene in the dentist’s surgery so, if she needs to, she can threaten to show how Elizabeth lied. It’s a capital offence, obviously. Currently, Lydia is the brains behind most of the Aunts’ most important projects, and she has the ear of their boss, Commander Judd. She isn’t the named leader of the Aunts, but it doesn’t matter to her—until it becomes clear that Vidala, who is more senior, sees her as a threat and wants her out of the way. We don’t know yet how Lydia is going to stop her.

Enough of Lydia? Not at all, because her story also links up decisively with the other two. Earlier, she had reacted with shock when another aunt had suggested that in order for Mayday to be so successful, there must be an insider, in Ardua Hall, feeding them information. Do we guess who this might be? Of course we do, it’s Lydia herself. But, also of course, it isn’t as simple as that. She is running agents in Canada, one of whom has had to be terminated when her cover is blown. (Or does she terminate the one who blows her cover, presenting it as a suicide that nobody believes in?) I said from the start that this is a different kind of novel from The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s turned into a political thriller. The author whose style it reminds me of most is Robert Harris, and one of my recent favourites is Conclave, focusing on the Machiavellian plotting that surrounds the election of a new pope. It isn’t narrated by the main character, and he isn’t one of the plotters, but the machinations are all laid out for us….

So, my reader, is she behind the bombing in Toronto? I couldn’t possibly comment. But when one of Daisy’s minders says that smuggling her back into Gilead for subversive reasons is ‘a gamble,’ either he’s right, it is a gamble—or he’s working for Lydia and knows exactly where Daisy/Nicole is going. However… when she gets to Gilead and, inevitably, to Ardua Hall, we don’t know what Lydia is planning to do with her. She, Lydia, has told Commander Judd that they have Nicole, but that she’s biding her time before any kind of announcement. I can’t remember whether she explicitly tells Judd to trust her, but she at least implies she wants to save it for maximum impact. What she is telling neither Judd nor her dear reader is what kind of impact she’s looking to make. Maybe Nicole is going to become part of her own retirement plan. I can’t imagine that Canada would be a safe haven—too many people would want to subject her to a particicution of their own.

Meanwhile, as they say…. In fact, not quite meanwhile in the case of Agnes in Gilead. We finally get an accurate take on how her time-line fits with Lydia’s and Daisy/Nicole’s: she’s reached that awkward age when privileged 13-year-old girls in Gilead get married off to the most high-status Commander her parents can entice. Lydia, who intervenes on her behalf—she has her own agenda, obviously—lets us know that this is nine years before her memoir. I still suspect Agnes is Offred’s pre-coup daughter and, if she were six or younger when she was taken away, the dates would fit. She’s now growing up as a potential Aunt… and I’m beginning to wonder if it was Lydia who got Offred to tape her own memoir, the one we learn is the basis of The Handmaid’s Tale. She would know exactly who Agnes is, and if Offred is still alive, something like a dozen years after, I’m sure she could use their relationship to her own advantage. And even—who knows?—to theirs. Is a happy ending possible?

Thrillers make readers come up with these sorts of speculations, I suppose, but I should fill in some details. They are mainly to do with plot, although Agnes’s memoir is the one that gives us something like a real sense of what the lives of women have become at the height of the regime’s power. It’s the closest we get to a continuation of Offred’s narrative but, at least as far as the point when Lydia rescues her (or abducts her for her own nefarious purposes, or whatever), it’s from an entirely new perspective. I’ve said enough about her schooling, a variation on the education of the daughters of the rich in earlier eras. There’s embroidery, drawing, needlepoint, basic household management—i.e. how to tell the servants what to do—but there’s a difference too. Reading in this world is dangerous, so new Wives—unlike Serena Joy in the earlier novel, remain illiterate.

What is really new is the system of arranged marriages, and how it looks from a girl’s point of view. The Aunts in charge of their education have instilled a dread of male sexuality which, when Agnes is visibly terrified and revolted by what is to come, one of them quietly suggests might have gone too far. But a fear of sex isn’t the only problem, or even the main one. They are being groomed to be trophy wives for heroes of the regime—usually self-styled heroes like the overweight, self-indulgent Commander Judd. And guess what? Agnes’s hateful stepmother manages to bring him into the frame as a possible future son-in-law. He’s exactly the sort of man she would love to have as a family connection, so the other choices on offer, just as bad in their own ways, are tacitly vetoed. The scene in which Agnes meets him is, in its way, even worse than what Offred goes through in the sex ‘Ceremony’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. The combination of the Aunts’ coddling of their ‘precious flowers’, the things they tell the girls about men’s behaviour, and the Commander himself combine to make Agnes fear she might throw up.

‘I could smell his breath, a blend of alcohol, mint mouthwash like at the dentist’s, and tooth decay. I had an unbidden image of the wedding night: an enormous, opaque white blob…. It had a head, but no face, only an orifice like the mouth of a leech. From somewhere in its mid-section a third tentacle was waving around…’ and so on, the almost literally fevered imagination of a terrified child. And as for dentists… let’s not go there.

The thriller plot has tended to be on hold during Agnes’s narrative, but it comes into play when Lydia arrives. She’s always hated Judd’s way with wives, taking on a new one until she dies of some mysterious wasting disease in her early twenties. But she hasn’t stopped it before, which is what makes me suspect there’s some other agenda. She sets Agnes a kind of test, making her use a certain degree of initiative in order to arrange a meeting with another Aunt. And when the evil stepmother tries to intervene by paying a visit to Ardua Hall, Agnes sees Lydia having a quiet word with her. She withdraws her objection immediately and leaves.

Gilead is a small world. Becka, the daughter of the dentist had been in Agnes’s marriage preparation class, and was in a state of almost perpetual hysteria about the prospect of sex with a man. We’re ahead of the narrative at this point, especially when she attempts suicide. Her father had obviously done to her what he did to Agnes, a fact that is confirmed some years later, in that tearful recorded conversation I’ve already mentioned. She was four when he started on her…. And this is just about as far as I’ve got with Agnes’s story, and both she and Becka have stayed the course so far. But, we know, Lydia doesn’t think the other girl will make it to the end. It’s tough, with prospective Aunts having to prove themselves as Pearl Girls—rescuing ‘pearls beyond price’ from the Godless states surrounding Gilead. We know long before this that it’s nothing to do with God, and everything to do with establishing a power-base.

Speaking of Pearl Girls. They are instrumental in Daisy/Nicole’s story, eventually arranging a new identity and passport for her to get her back to Gilead. Atwood doesn’t mention the elaborateness and cost of the enterprise, but we note the jet travel, the expensive rooms—and know that the regime, cash-strapped as it is, would not be spending it on saving the souls of Canadians. OK. But there’s a lot of ground to be covered between Ada’s initial rescue of her after the car bomb and this later rescue. Two other people are heavily involved, one of them risking himself for days in order to pass Daisy/Nicole off as a homeless street girl. She’s Jade now—people change their names all the time in this world, even the Commanders whose names now are not the ones they had before the coup—and she looks a wreck. But, we guess—and it’s later confirmed—this isn’t why the rescue goes so smoothly. Lydia is orchestrating every stage of it—so that as Daisy/Nicole/Jade’s minder has warned her not to make her wish to be picked up too obvious, we realise the Pearl Girls aren’t making it too obvious either. They notice her and speak to her, then leave her for days before making their move. It has Lydia’s fingerprints all over it.

Anything else? There’s the language of the regime’s institutions and practices, like the clunky neologisms—econowives and particicutions are particularly awful—and the bible-related phrases. And there are a couple of last things, for now, about Lydia. Like, when I guessed her survival after the coup would not be pretty, I was right. Not that Atwood was ever going to make it difficult to guess. The biggest test was to be a member of a firing-squad, which she didn’t baulk at. Judd reassures her that her gun was loaded with blanks, but she doesn’t particularly believe him, and she doesn’t particularly care. And, not long after that, she relishes telling us the enormity of the bargain she has made, the one for which ‘Mephistopheles has not yet collected the price. For there was a bargain. Of course there was. But I didn’t make it with the Devil, I made it with Commander Judd.’ My goodness.

But now, Nicole is in Ardua Hall, Agnes is there too, with her time-line moving so fast it will catch up with hers and Lydia’s soon, and Lydia has got something big up her sleeve. Time to read on.

1 October
Sections 18-27—Agnes, then Lydia alternating with Agnes and Nicole’s shared sections; epilogue
This is very enjoyable—and even less like The Handmaid’s Tale than it has been so far. The world of Gilead is still there, and everything about it is as horrible as ever, but Atwood is able to try some more new things. She’s brought Agnes and Nicole together, ostensibly so that Agnes and Becka, the dentist’s daughter, can be her mentors in her new life. It’s the clash of the mindsets as the Gilead-raised young women, now in their early 20s, are constantly appalled by the language and attitudes of the brattish sixteen-year-old. (Atwood, for her own reasons, has not made her particularly attractive.) The trainee Aunts have to try to keep it within the bounds of plausibility that the new ‘convert’ really does want to forge a new life in Gilead.

They all share one of Ardua Hall’s Spartan apartments, which is bad enough—the trainee Aunts are bemused by the noises from upstairs as Nicole ‘works out,’ an idea that staggers them—and are forced together even more closely when Aunt Lydia sends Agnes and Nicole on their mission. Becka has to stay behind because Nicole is filling her place, but the other two embark on what I can only imagine is a deliberate pastiche of an old-style adventure yarn. When they have to complete a river-crossing in a small dinghy we’re in Boy’s Own territory, updated. Now, at last, it’s Nicole’s turn to show Agnes how to do something, so that underneath the gung-ho fun there’s a reminder of how gender-divided so many activities used to be. (It struck me at one point how all the ‘Founder Aunts’ are getting old—the attitudes they inculcate into their girls are like those of old women we might remember. Especially if Lydia’s dear reader has been around nearly as long as they have.)

And I haven’t even mentioned a) that Agnes and Nicole have the same birth-mother, identified in the epilogue, almost certainly, as Offred; and b) the outrageous things Aunt Lydia gets up to in order to bring everything, or nearly everything, to a happy conclusion. She is deadly serious about her project, which really is to bring about the downfall of Gilead in its present form. But along the way she continues to revel in her role as straight-faced mischief-maker—and she’s killing two birds with one stone. In the dark days following the coup, Commander Judd had been the one subjecting her to torture and sadistic tests of her suitability—the firing-squad is his idea—so by bringing down the regime she’ll be sealing his fate too. And Nicole is one of his pet projects; when it fails—which Lydia is making sure it does—it will do him literally fatal damage.

At one point, after Judd has overturned all protocol to raid the Ardua Hall print-shop—he’s trying to find the culprit behind the messages being sent in the Pearl Girls’ leaflets—Lydia takes him through the names of all the senior Aunts who have access. She deliberately includes her own name in the list of possible suspects, and Judd smiles at her ‘little joke.’ She’s loving this. Later, she remembers the firing-squad, and his story that hers was one of the guns firing blanks. One of the women they were shooting had been a colleague of Lydia’s, so it cost her a lot, and now she contemplates what she would want in a gun if she was firing it at him. ‘A blank? Or a bullet?’ Guess which she chooses.

I was saying earlier that Gilead is a small world. Partly, I meant what I call the Springfield effect. As in The Simpsons, a city-sized community consists almost entirely of a handful of characters, all of whom know one another. Gilead is supposed to cover most of the present-day USA—and yet all the action takes place in a town that feels tiny. However… it makes it easy for Atwood to make this final section so personal. Lydia might be bringing down a regime—there’s an awful lot of information about its leaders’ crimes packed into the special microdot she has grafted on to Nicole’s healing tattoo—but, really, this is her vengeance on one man. It’s one of the things that delights her the most. We know he’s a serial monogamist—she calls him a Bluebeard in her writing—ensuring a steady flow of new wives by having them die young. Lydia pretends to go along with the idea that when his latest one fades away from rat poisoning—a process she’s actually halted without his knowledge—he will be able to marry Nicole. It makes him all the more enraged when he finds out she’s gone back to Canada—and Lydia never pretends that her revenge isn’t very sweet indeed.

How many details do you need? Lydia brings down her other great enemy, Aunt Vidala, first by suggesting to Nicole that she use whatever force necessary if she accosts her and Agnes as they leave Ardua Hall in the early morning, then by making Vidala’s accusations about her sound like the ravings of dementia in her presentation of them. I couldn’t help thinking of Lydia as Atwood’s alter-ego. Her darkly witty pronouncements sound just like Atwood’s in interviews—I’ve seen her at live events, twice—which is why there’s such delight in the revenge she is able to take. I think there are regimes in the West that Atwood would just love to bring down. She’s doing her best, I suppose.

And the plot follows its inevitable trajectory to the end. We always knew that Nicole and Agnes would survive, and that at least Agnes would live long enough to look back with a degree of distance on the Gilead she was brought up in. In true adventure-yarn style, Atwood adds a sprinkling of jeopardy from time to time, especially in the ship’s loss of power, and when they are alone in the dinghy in the fog…. But once they reach landfall, they appear to be found in seconds in spite of having drifted way off-course. From then on, over a page or two, absolutely everything seems to go right for them, forever. Later, when the novel ends with another of those ‘Gileadean Studies’ conferences we first saw at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, we hear of an obscure memorial that has been found. The final words of the novel consist of the wording on the memorial, erected for Becka decades later by Agnes and Nicole, now old enough to have grandchildren. She was surplus to requirements, and would have had a terrible time of it anyway had she survived, so Atwood has her die in the hiding-place which had been the site of another girl’s death. So it goes.

And Lydia. Was she ever going to survive? With everything ready for the final push she offers herself the choice—‘My reader, I am now poised on the razor’s edge.’ If she goes along with the regime, and Judd’s plan to marry Nicole and parade her as a triumph of God over the infidels, she will be praised to the heavens and live to a ripe old age. If not, then—what? She pretends she’ll sleep on it, but we know she doesn’t need to. And at the end, after the Canadian government has published everything and the self-destructive recriminations in Gilead begin—which they do, immediately—she knows she hasn’t long to live. She’d picked up a syringe of morphine from Vidala’s bedside and—how does it go? ‘The footsteps approach, one boot after another. Between one breath and the next the knock will come.’ The end.

And it really is the end. Gilead in its pomp is over, as Atwood signalled would happen in the epilogue of The Handmaid’s Tale. Now we have a new epilogue, with the same academic bringing his 22nd-Century audience up to date with the research. Again, Atwood can offer us her pastiche of his language, his droll TED Talks manner…. And it goes with all the other voices and ideolects she’s been sustaining throughout. The pompous pieties of the regime’s (totally hypocritical) pronouncements; the wide-eyed acceptance of those pieties by Agnes and, especially, the doubt-free Becka; Nicole’s sloppily unattractive 21st Century cursing… and, of course, Lydia’s bi- or trilingualism, her ability to switch mid-sentence from the knowingness of her memoir, the cynical pieties of her conversations with Judd and the straight Sunday-school language of Agnes, Becka and the more innocent Aunts.

It’s clever, and it’s fun. I’ve mentioned how great writers play games, and this is another one, games with language—a taste Atwood shares with Lydia. I think it was Lydia who came up with the play on words which is the motto that gives Ardua Hall its name, Per Ardua ad Estra. She pretends it means something like ‘Through labour to childbirth.’ She was never taking any of it seriously, just biding her time. And now, job done, her time is up.

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