At the global launch of Margaret Atwood’s highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, the author spoke publicly about her new book The Testaments for the first time. 'Excitement' doesn’t do the build-up to the biggest book launch of the year any justice, of course. Fans queued outside the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones in London at midnight on Tuesday in order to hear Atwood read from the new novel and to see the tower of books ceremonially revealed. Even more so in the wake of the TV adaptation's final episode, the world has waited with bated breath to discover what would come of this terrifyingly pertinent dystopia – and what might be in store here in the real world, too.
"There had been many requests for a sequel which I had always said no to because I understood it meant that it would be a continuation of the narrative voice of Offred and The Handmaid’s Tale, and there was no way I could recreate that," Atwood explained at the press conference. "However, as time moved on instead of moving further away from Gilead, we started moving towards it – particularly in the United States. I re-examined that position and decided that, although I could not continue with the story of Offred, I could continue with three other people concerned in these events and tell the story of the beginning of the end."
In The Testaments, the beginning of the end is narrated by three voices. One of the narrators grows up within Gilead. Another grows up across the border, somewhere that Atwood describes as "the place you escape to when things go pear-shaped in the United States, and that would be Canada". The last voice gives us the perspective of a familiar figure: Aunt Lydia.
The collective consensus is that we’re approaching the sequel enthusiastically but also bracing ourselves for a dystopia that mirrors our reality a little too closely for comfort. When asked how she felt about her narrative and the image of the handmaids being used as a tool for protest, Atwood said: "That is what has happened and we will wait to see what happens next, but none of this would be happening unless countries were putting people in charge of women’s bodies who are not those women. So, if everything were fair and equitable and the government really was by consent of the governed, only potentially pregnant women would be able to vote on these matters."
Despite our reality running in tandem with an increasingly seminal work of fiction, though, Atwood suggests we can find comfort in the fact that, the way she writes it at least, Gilead eventually vanishes. At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale we discover that 200 years into the future, people are holding symposiums on the Gilead regime. Despite the horrors that were explored in the narrative of the first novel, Atwood says "that every dystopia contains within itself a little utopia".
"[The Testaments] enters into a conversation that’s already taking place because The Handmaid’s Tale has been a meme in these kinds of conversations for years. It was in the 2008 [American] election, it was in the 2012 election and it certainly was in the 2016 election. But for a society that claims to value individual freedom, I would say to them evidently you don’t think this individual freedom extends to women." Nevertheless, she describes the novels as hopeful.
Atwood explains: "The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic. Why is that? Because it ends, I didn’t kill off the central character – I think that counts! Also, we have the symposium at the end which makes it clear that Gilead didn’t last. So, there’s lots of reasons not to be optimistic but, about these types of regimes, there are frequently reasons to be optimistic because in fact they tend to not last. It’s clear that Gilead is over, and it crumbled partly from within."
"Regimes fall apart when they can’t fulfil their promises," Atwood adds. And for that, we have a small but essential reason to be hopeful for what The Testaments and our real-world future might look like.