BY MARGARET ATWOOD
Nan A. Talese, 2019
432 pp.; $28.95
[Mild spoiler alert: this review contains plot details of the book.]
During the torture session conducted by the Big Brother interrogator O'Brien in George Orwell's 1984, the doomed Winston Smith, on being told how powerful and eternal the regime is, says through broken teeth: "Something will defeat you ... evil cannot sustain itself."
That is the theme of Margaret Atwood's long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. The title is The Testaments, but it could just as easily have been called "How Theocracies Perish."
Set fifteen years after the van door slammed shut on Handmaid's protagonist Offred, the new novel shows a Gilead still standing. (The Republic of Gilead, for those unfamiliar with the story, is the theocratic state that has overthrown the US government). Women are still locked into Old Testament strictures; they aren't allowed to read, write, hold a job, or drive a car. Those with notions of independence from pre-Gilead days are still herded into the regime's "re-education camps," presided over by the cattle-prod-wielding "Aunts"--infertile women tasked with destroying the psyches of these prisoners. And women are still blamed for inciting male rape.
Although the sustainable birth rate has increased a bit, there is still a need for Handmaids, fertile women who are essentially raped every month by their "Commander," who is the head of the household and holds a position in the government.
This time around, though, something's not quite right in Gilead. The clothes are more threadbare, the towels rougher, and there is a noticeable lack of consumer goods. Wars are still being fought against Baptists in Texas (now its own country) and against Mormons and Quakers in the Midwest, but the regime is not winning them. And Gilead is weakened to the point where resistance forces in Canada can now perform commando operations inside Gilead.
Worse, their valued "birthing machines," the Handmaids, are fleeing to Canada in large numbers.
In The Handmaid's Tale, published in 1985, the hypocrisy practiced by the government was subtle and confined to male sexuality. Male leaders violated the founding principles of the Old Testament regime by hoarding porn and creating a night club filled with scantily clad women for hedonistic sex.
Fifteen years later, the corruption has spread and is more homicidal.
Leaders kill founders and each other either in purge trials or suspicious...