The lowdown on The Testaments... and whether it really is a must-read?
The much anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is out on Tuesday. From its dystopian vision to its Booker Prize odds, David Sexton breaks open the cloak of secrecy surrounding Margaret Atwood's new novel
Q: When is it published?
A: On Tuesday (September 10).
Q: There's a bit of a fuss about it, isn't there?
A: Rather. Celebratory events are being held on Monday night at Waterstones Piccadilly, including panel discussions, readings, themed cocktails, "immersive experiences", mentoring, embroidery, placard-making and an appearance by Atwood. Fans will wear cloaks and bonnets.
More than 100 other branches of Waterstones are planning events.
Atwood, super-spry at 79, is kicking off publication day with a 10am press conference at the British Library at which she will speak publicly about The Testaments for the first time.
In the evening she's in conversation with Samira Ahmed at the National Theatre, with guest Lily James reading extracts.
The sold-out event is being live-streamed to 1,500 cinemas worldwide, including 500 in the UK (margaretatwoodlive.com). A nationwide tour takes place in October.
Q: How come The Testaments has already been shortlisted for the Booker then?
A: The cut-off date for the Booker is September 30 each year, so it is not unknown for books to be shortlisted before they're in shops. However, the circumstances whereby the Booker judges were not allowed to offer any justifying description, let alone synopsis, was unprecedented. "Spoiler discretion and a ferocious non-disclosure agreement prevent any description of who, how, why and even where. So this: it's terrifying and exhilarating" was all they could say when it was longlisted.
Q: So the book is tightly embargoed?
A: It was supposed to be, but the embargo fell apart. Hundreds of readers in the US received copies a week ahead of publication as Amazon pre-orders. Reviews appeared on Wednesday in the States and by Thursday reviews were appearing all over the place, although perhaps not all these reviewers had time to read the book's 419 pages very carefully.
Q: What's the verdict so far?
A: Surprisingly mixed, particularly from Atwood fans who have concluded that it's no more than a fast-read thriller compared to the weighty classic that is The Handmaid's Tale.
In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani was respectful, judging it "compelling". But Ron Charles in The Washington Post declared: "The Testaments is not nearly the devastating satire of political and theological misogyny that The Handmaid's Tale is." For Slate, Laura Miller said its "corker of a plot" made it a rare treat, "fun to read in a way that The Handmaid's Tale is not" - but concluded that, lugubrious though it is, The Handmaid's Tale was the more truthful of the two.
For Vox, Constance Grady agreed that it is escapist, slighter and less truthful than its predecessor. "It's fun to read. It's beautifully written. But it feels less honest than The Handmaid's Tale did. And for that reason it's hard to imagine it having the same kind of grand legacy."
Q: But will it still win the Booker?
A: You bet. Atwood has won before, for The Blind Assassin in 2000, and been shortlisted five times. She has been a guest of the Booker chair, Peter Florence, at Hay, and her long-term editor and close friend Liz Calder is the most senior of his four all-female Booker judges. Imagine if she didn't! What a dystopia that would be.
Q: Do you need to be up to speed with Hulu's TV series of The Handmaid's Tale to get it?
A: The publishers maintain that "The Testaments is not connected to TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale". Reviews suggest that the situation is not quite so clear-cut, though. Atwood has picked up specific elements that originated with the TV series - such as Baby Nicole, born to a handmaid in Gilead and spirited across the border into Canada, and made a central character in this story.
More generally, several reviewers have detected that the thrillerish tone owes more to the adaptation, especially the second and third series, in which Offred (Elizabeth Moss) evolves from a depressed, powerless victim into a bad-ass warrior queen, than to her own original.
Q: Will it be adapted for TV too?
A: Yes. Hulu has already announced that The Testaments is going to be a separate show, from the same team.
Q: First line?
A: "Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive."
Q: How does it relate to the original?
A: The Handmaid's Tale ended with Offred, believing herself to be pregnant, being taken off by men wearing the uniform of the secret police, not knowing whether she was being arrested or helped by the resistance to escape.
The Testaments is set 15 or so years later. Offred makes only the briefest appearance, near the end, speaking just a couple of sentences but smelling right.
This time there are three narrators, with their first-person testimonies again presented, at the end of the book, as dubious evidence discussed by dorky academics in the far future, long after Gilead's fall.
One of the narrators, Agnes Jemima, is Offred's oldest daughter, five when she was snatched from Offred and her husband Luke as they attempted to escape across the border. She has been brought up in Gilead by powerful regime foster parents.
Another, Daisy, is a 16-year-old girl who escaped Gilead as a baby (reviewers have already complained that a key reveal can be seen coming from miles off) and has grown up in freedom in Canada, raised by oddly overprotective parents until disaster strikes them. She then goes into Gilead, undercover, pretending to be a convert.
The third is none other than Aunt Lydia, the autocratic tormentor of Offred, who has risen to become the supreme matriarch of the regime, head of 'Ardua Hall'. We learn her harrowing backstory and realise she is a cunning political survivor, now working against Gilead, using the guilty secrets of its commanders. Reviewers agree that her sardonic narrative, surviving as a holograph manuscript, makes more convincing reading than those of the teenagers, supposedly recovered from tapes. These three strands, as you may well guess, ultimately weave closely together.
Q: Is it less bleak?
A. Yes. Atwood says she was asking herself how totalitarianism falls apart. This is ultimately an optimistic story about the eventual collapse of Gilead.
Q: Is the novel any more diverse than its precursor?
A: No. In The Handmaid's Tale it was made clear that the regime had eliminated minorities, leaving an absence that angered many readers, set right in the TV adaptation. Reviewers report the topic is scarcely raised any further in The Testaments.
Q: Do men come off any better?
A: Absolutely. This time, they're the good guys. Just kidding. "Gilead men are at best nonentities, at worst monstrous," says one reviewer. A husband in this world is basically "a goat on fire". But Atwood is, as ever, equally clear about the potential of women for cruelty, betrayal and corruption.
Q: What does Gilead tell us about contemporary reality?
A: Many believe this dystopian vision has become ever more apt since first imagined 35 years ago. "Since the election of Trump, the novel's depiction of misogyny and witch-hunts feels chillingly prophetic," notes a commentator.
Atwood herself is more circumspect and ingenious. In a 2017 essay, What The Handmaid's Tale Means in the Age of Trump, she said: "No, it isn't a prediction, because predicting the future isn't really possible… Let's say it's an antiprediction: If this future can be described in detail, maybe it won't happen."
On the other hand, in one of her few pre-publication comments, she said if one inspiration for The Testaments was the questions she has been asked about Gilead by her fans, "the other inspiration is the world we have been living in".
- The Testaments, published Tuesday by Chatto & Windus at £20. An audiobook (with Ann Dowd who plays Aunt Lydia in the show, as one of the narrators) is also available
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