The Post-Traumatic Novel

The Testaments

by Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 419 pp., $28.95
Miriam Toews in costume as the character Esther during the filming of Silent Light set in a Mennonite settlement in Chihuahua, Mexico, July 2006
Carol Loewen
Miriam Toews in costume as the character Esther during the filming of Silent Light, directed by Carlos Reygadas (left) and set in a Mennonite settlement in Chihuahua, Mexico, July 2006

Crimes have a tendency to become not just stories but genres, once we get too accustomed to them. As more and more stories of sexual assault have been made public in the last two years, the genre of their telling has exploded. One thing we often do with narratives of sexual assault is sort their respective parties into different temporalities: it seems we are interested in perpetrators’ futures and victims’ pasts. Whatever questions society has about the perpetrators tend to concern their next steps: Will they go to prison? What of their careers? Questions asked about the victims—even at their most charitable (when we aren’t asking, “What was she wearing?”)—seem to focus on the past, sometimes in pursuit of understanding, sometimes in pursuit of certainty and corroboration and painful details.

One result is that we don’t have much of a vocabulary for what happens in a victim’s life after the painful past has been excavated, even when our shared language gestures toward the future, as the term “survivor” does. The victim’s trauma after assault rarely gets the attention that we lavish on the moment of damage that divided the survivor from a less encumbered past. One of the things that Margaret Atwood accomplishes in The Testaments—which recently won the Booker Prize (shared with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other)—is enlarging our perspective by focusing on the aftermath of assault. This engaging sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale tempers the first novel’s grim vision by supplying a parallel text that reveals one of its villains, Aunt Lydia, to have been a rebel in waiting.

The Handmaid’s Tale describes its fictional dystopia, Gilead, as a male theocracy with almost perfect powers of surveillance over its female subjects. What The Testaments proves—reassuringly—is that Gilead’s hegemony was not just incomplete but flawed from its inception: someone was always in fact keeping an eye on the Eye. The horror of the Handmaids’ suffering, which in The Handmaid’s Tale was somehow both sanctioned and ignored, is somewhat mitigated by the revelation that it was always being witnessed: strict records of abuses were being compiled. The Testaments is a text that believes, quite strongly, that dossiers showing wrongdoing by the power brokers matter. Its premise is that if the truth is recorded, exposed, and circulated, consequences will be meted out and power will crumble.

This strikes me as an anemic optimism. If Me Too (not to mention impeachment) has taught us anything, it is that testimony does not dislodge power. We careen from outrage to outrage in a rollicking attention-deficit economy that…


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