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How the Booker 2019 winners capture the spirit of resistance in the age of Trump

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on October 18, 2019 Published on October 18, 2019

Blazing a trail: This year’s Booker Prize was jointly awarded to Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo   -  REUTERS

This year’s Man Booker Prize was split between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. A closer look at the award-winning books ‘The Testaments’ and ‘Girl, Woman, Other’

A few days before the winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize was announced, London saw the six shortlisted authors — Elif Shafak, Chigozie Obioma, Salman Rushdie, Lucy Ellmann, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo — on a stage together. Ellmann’s novel Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,020-page book structured as a nearly-uninterrupted monologue, has often been criticised for its length and the moderator promptly asked her about this. Without missing a beat, the British author insisted that a man wouldn’t have been subjected to this line of inquiry, adding for good measure, “I think it’s time for men to shut up”. Ellmann’s response felt perfectly timed, for this was the first shortlist in the award’s 50-year-old history that did not include a white man.

Eventually, judges broke Booker rules to hand Evaristo and Atwood a joint victory earlier this week. It was the 79-year-old Atwood’s second win, after her 2000 victory for The Blind Assassin. Atwood’s novelThe Testaments is the long-awaited sequel to her classic 1985 dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale.

 

The Testaments; Margaret Atwood; Penguin; Fiction; ₹799

 

The two books are set in the fictional Republic of Gilead, an ultra-religious post-apocalyptic state formed by the Sons of Jacob, an Old Testament-inspired radical outfit. Women are, without exception, subjugated by men. The ruling class of men is called Commander. Outside of the wives and daughters of these Commanders, legally recognised women are divided into three categories — ‘Handmaids’, fertile women earmarked for procreation; ‘Aunts’, who train and indoctrinate the Handmaids, and finally, ‘Marthas’, older women (past the childbearing age, that is) who cook and clean.

The Handmaid’s Tale was told from the point of view of Offred (‘of Fred’, belonging to Fred), a Handmaid. Through the course of the book, we see how Offred plots her escape from servitude. Because the novel ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, it wasn’t entirely clear whether Offred’s apparent escape at the end was successful.

The Testaments does provide some answers about Offred’s fate. (In a major concession to fans, Atwood uses ‘June’ as her real name, as seen in the Handmaid’s Tale TV show.) She survives and ends up becoming one of Gilead’s most wanted public enemies, surviving multiple assassination attempts. However, this sequel is really all about the Aunts, especially Aunt Lydia, a character introduced in the 1985 book as almost unambiguously villainous.

The novel’s biggest achievement — as well the source of its most memorable passages — is the way Atwood humanises Lydia, offering readers a behind-the-scenes peek at the way she was indoctrinated into Gilead’s rules and regulations. That we know Lydia does the same thing to the likes of Offred only makes this process all the more poignant.

Much before The Testaments was released, Atwood had said that the novel was about “hope, lots and lots of hope”. This is reflected in the novel’s other two leads, Agnes and Daisy, Offred’s daughters who are both, in the beginning of the book, unaware of the other’s existence. While Agnes is about to assume her role as a Commander’s wife, we meet Daisy for the first time in Canada, as the adopted daughter of a couple who own a clothing store. By the time they meet, and embark on a Thelma and Louise-styled road trip/survival movie caper, readers are already firmly rooting for their young heroines.

The Testaments is as much Atwood’s love letter to her fans as it is a goosebumps-inducing indictment of the ongoing, post-Trump Age of Idiocy. It is also the most plot-driven novel to win the Booker in recent times and that’s a thing to celebrate in an era where literary fiction is widely perceived as unreadable high art, out of touch with the realities of shrinking attention spans and the omnipresence of visual media.

Speaking about her co-winner Evaristo, Atwood said, “It would have been quite embarrassing for a person of my age and stage to have won the whole thing and thereby hinder a person in an earlier stage of their career from going through that door.” That a mixed-race queer woman (Evaristo was born to an English mother and a Nigerian father) won was also the perfect coda for this year’s Booker. Race, after all, is the one issue Atwood is criticised about by the Left. It didn’t help that she once said, in an interview, that the kind of subjugation described in The Handmaid’s Tale “was unlike anything seen in North America” — conveniently ignoring the ugly history of sexual slavery, a significant part of African-American history.

Evaristo’s novel, Girl, Woman, Other features 12 protagonists, most of them black women, telling us their interconnected stories in a non-linear fashion. Through their lives, Evaristo explores some rather tricky questions. Exactly how much of herself does a woman have to suppress to further her career? Is a black mother being principled or unfair when she insists that her daughter cannot date a white man? What happens when queer people, in their eagerness to “pass” as straight in the public sphere, end up mimicking the ways in which straight men manipulate their partners?

Together, the two Booker-winning novels of 2019 are a near-perfect demonstration of the ways in which fiction can often be more useful than journalism when it comes to capturing the zeitgeist.

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Published on October 18, 2019
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