Does the sequel to 'The Handmaid's Tale' live up to the hype?

Rosie Fiore finds out more about Margaret Atwood's new novel, 'The Testaments', from the formidable author herself — including how the plot differs to the hit TV series based on her original book

17 September 2019 - 10:29 By Rosie Fiore

Published in the Sunday Times: 15/09/2019

A few months short of her 80th birthday, Margaret Atwood is living the rock star life, draped in couture on the cover of the Sunday Times Style magazine. The National Theatre is emblazoned with acid-green projections of the cover of her new book, The Testaments. A midnight festival fills all five floors of the vast Waterstone's bookshop in Piccadilly.

There are sold-out events broadcast globally and press conferences with a storm of cameras clicking and whirring. Take it from me, this is not how the literary world usually works.

But September 10 2019 was no ordinary day - the launch of The Testaments, the sequel to Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, is, as the Guardian tells us, "The literary event of the year". And London has gone Atwood mad.

In the 50 years since the publication of her first novel, The Edible Woman, Atwood has written more than 50 books. She has been shortlisted six times for the Booker Prize and has won it once, along with an almost unprecedented cluster of other awards and accolades.

She wrote The Handmaid's Tale while living in West Berlin in 1984. It presents a futuristic version of the US ruled by a strict sect, aiming to reclaim "Christian values" in the face of environmental disaster and a falling birth rate. Fertile women are captured, imprisoned and given to elite couples ("Commanders" and their wives) to bear children.

Three decades later, the rise of Donald Trump and other far-right politicians in the US saw a resurgence of interest in the book.

The visual icon of women in long red dresses, their faces concealed by white winged bonnets, became a symbol of the oppression of women and their lack of autonomy concerning their own bodies.

"Handmaids" began appearing at protests.

"That started in Texas, where an all-male legislature was bringing in more laws about women's bodies," Atwood says. "It's brilliant as a protest tactic because you're not saying anything or creating a disturbance and you can't be kicked out for dressing inappropriately because you're all covered up. No frightful bare shoulders."

Shortly after this, the smash hit television show, created by writer/producer Bruce Miller for Hulu, brought the handmaids to worldwide attention. We were all transfixed by the struggles of Offred as she battled to free her daughters and herself from the oppressive regime.

Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor and environmental activist Margaret Atwood.
Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, inventor and environmental activist Margaret Atwood.
Image: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images

So why has Atwood returned to Gilead in 2019? When I see her at 10 in the morning after the midnight launch, she looks remarkably fresh and alert. She is asked a long, rambling question about her reasons for writing the sequel.

She regards the questioner coolly and replies, "That's about 50 questions. Let's try and condense it a bit."

I had wondered whether she was pushed by her publisher to write the sequel, but it seems the idea was entirely hers.

"I sent a two-paragraph summary to my publishers on February 17 2017, saying what it [The Testaments] was and who was going to be in it," she says, "I think probably they were terrified. It does sound like a mad idea."

I would disagree. I am inclined to think that the publishing team probably formed a conga line and danced around the office at the thought of a sequel.

She has, apparently, been working on the book since 2015, when Trump first began to rise: "There had been many requests for a sequel, which I had always said no to, because I understood it to be a continuation of the narrative voice of Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, and there was no way I could recreate that.

"However, as time moved on and instead of moving away from Gilead we started moving towards it, particularly in the US, I re-examined that position. I could continue with three other people concerned in these events and tell the story of the beginning of the end.

WATCH | Margaret Atwood discusses the three narrators in 'The Testaments'

"One of the narrators grows up in Gilead, one grows up in Canada. So we see Gilead from within, from without and from a founder."

This founder is Aunt Lydia, whom viewers will recognise, played with formidable menace by Ann Dowd in the television series.

Atwood continues; "Aunt Lydia is only seen from the outside in The Handmaid's Tale."

In The Testaments we get to hear her thoughts for the first time, and it's quite a story. We learn about Lydia's life before Gilead, when she was a teacher and then a judge.

"How do these people get into their positions of relative power?" Atwood asks, "What do they use this power for and what is their justification to themselves? I read many journals of people in this position, including the diaries of Goebbels. Also, we know from history that it's not unusual to have someone functioning within a regime who is also somewhat hostile to that regime."

In The Testaments Aunt Lydia notes: "All that festers is not gold, but it can be made profitable in non-monetary ways: knowledge is power, especially discreditable knowledge. I am not the first person to have recognised this, or to have capitalised on it when possible: every intelligence agency in the world has always known it."

It is intriguing to see how deftly Atwood navigates the worlds of the novel of The Handmaid's Tale and the series, which has moved well beyond the original book.

At the end of the first book, Offred is allegedly pregnant with her second child. We never see this baby. However, in the second season of the TV series, baby Nicole is born. Nicole, now named Daisy, is one of the three narrators of The Testaments. Offred's other daughter, Agnes, is the third.

How did Atwood manage to make this book dovetail with what we know from the TV series?

"Bruce Miller and I talk on the phone and I read the scripts and make notes on them. I don't have any actual power. I have 'influence'. They have a writing room and nobody gets in, including me," Atwood notes. "Luckily, we are in accord most of the time. When I said 'You can't kill that person', he said, 'Well, I wasn't going to'. And when I said 'hands off that baby,' he said. 'Oh. Okay'."

While 'The Handmaid's Tale', with its single cloistered narrator was all internal monologue, 'The Testaments' is fast-paced and action-packed ... much closer to the style of the television series 

This book "leapfrogs" the TV series by 15 years, giving the show writers carte blanche for many more series.

Of course, the big question is, what is the book like? Does it live up to the hype? I read it in a breathless 24 hours.

While The Handmaid's Tale, with its single cloistered narrator was all internal monologue, this is fast-paced and action-packed ... much closer to the style of the television series.

While it doesn't always read like Atwood's usual careful, economic prose, it's brilliantly written and very accessible. It will, I'm sure, bring her many new readers.

The book also continues within the rules she set herself with The Handmaid's Tale ... it does not feature any outrage which has not already happened in the world.

In a month in which SA has been horrified and outraged by a series of brutal rapes and murders, this book could not be timelier. Atwood's vision is reality, and we must confront it. As she wrote in an essay in the New York Times: "If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real."

  • Rosie Fiore is a South African born-novelist now living in London.