Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Testaments’ makes headlines and rips from them

Fanfare and faux pas surround the publication of the sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But really, it’s all about the book.
Margaret Atwood's new novel "The Testaments" is a sequel to her powerful and prescient "The Handmaid's Tale."
Margaret Atwood's new novel "The Testaments" is a sequel to her powerful and prescient "The Handmaid's Tale." [ Liam Sharp ]
Published Sept. 12, 2019|Updated Sept. 12, 2019

Before we get lost in all the analysis and pontificating and political connect-the-dots surrounding Margaret Atwood’s new novel, let’s remember this: Atwood is a hell of a writer, and, whatever else it may be, The Testaments is a splendid tale, splendidly told.

But the publication of the book, the sequel to the Canadian author’s 1985 dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, is also a media event. Atwood herself has appeared in recent weeks in places you would expect — witty interviews with the New York Times, NPR’s Weekend Edition and CBS’s Sunday Morning — and others you might not, like a cover and fashion spread for the Style section of the Times of London, posing in an elegant array of haute couture witchwear, a twinkle of irony in her eye.

As for The Testaments, publisher Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (an imprint of Penguin Random House) was keeping it under tighter wraps than the Mueller Report. No early copies for critics; those few who did get copies were required to sign strict nondisclosure agreements, their reviews embargoed until the book’s publication.

Among those who got their hands on The Testaments early were the judges for Great Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, who included the novel as one of the six short-listed for the 2019 award.

A first printing of half a million copies was scheduled. Booksellers were required to sign unusually stringent contracts, complete with financial penalties, promising not to sell the novel before its Sept. 10 publication date, or even to open the shipping boxes.

And then Amazon blew it all up.

A week before the publication date, the giant online retailer sent out an unknown number of copies of The Testaments to American customers who had ordered in advance. With the embargo smashed, a number of publications rushed out their reviews.

Todd Doughty, executive director for publicity at Doubleday, wrote in a terse statement, “A very small number of copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments were distributed early due to a retailer error which has now been rectified."

Independent booksellers, for whom the book’s debut would be perhaps this year’s most profitable event, were furious. The American Booksellers Association called for “the appropriate federal agencies (to) thoroughly investigate Amazon’s destructive business practices.”

A couple of days later, Amazon issued a vaguely worded apology, blaming the premature mailing on “technical” issues. On Tuesday, the official publication date, The Testaments topped its bestseller list, above new books by Dav Pilkey, Malcolm Gladwell, James Mattis and Stephen King, with The Handmaid’s Tale in the No. 7 spot.

Related: Read a 2017 interview with Margaret Atwood

Atwood, who will turn 80 on Nov. 18, had already ascended from longtime literary icon to pop-culture celebrity thanks to the recent explosion in interest in The Handmaid’s Tale, the best known of her 60 books. In April 2016, Hulu announced that an original series would be based on the book. A few months later, Donald Trump was elected president, setting off unprecedented political divisions in America. The climate made Atwood’s misogynist dystopia more relevant.

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Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred in Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale."
Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred in Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale." [ Hulu ]

The TV series, which released its third season this summer, has won large audiences, critical acclaim and 11 Emmy Awards. Atwood has praised it and even made a cameo as one of the Aunts, the fearsome enforcers of the fictional Gilead’s subjugation of women. In a brief scene in the first season, she slapped main character Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. (Hulu and the producers have already signed on to make another series based on The Testaments.)

Sales of The Handmaid’s Tale soared as Trump took office, taking it to the top ranks of bestseller lists for more than a year. It has now sold more than 8 million copies. Atwood’s Gilead — formerly the United States, transformed by military takeover into a land ruled by religious zealots, where infertility is rampant and women are valued only for their ability to have babies — has entered pop culture, as familiar a metaphor as Star Wars. Watch video of a protest against laws restricting reproductive rights and the camera will find women dressed in the Handmaids’ striking scarlet costume and white bonnet, a symbol instantly understood.

In 2017, activists dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" chant in the Texas Capitol Rotunda in Austin as they protest a bill related to abortion law.
In 2017, activists dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" chant in the Texas Capitol Rotunda in Austin as they protest a bill related to abortion law. [ ERIC GAY | AP ]

Atwood could rest on her laurels and royalties, but, as you might expect from someone with her brilliant, restless intellect, she has more to say. In interviews she has explained that she wrote The Testaments in part to answer some of readers’ questions about Gilead and Offred’s fate, and that in part she was inspired by “the times we’re living in.”

In an interview with the New York Times, she said, “I’m too old to be scared by much” — even the risk of writing sequels.

In a way, there’s already a sequel: the TV series. Only the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale is based directly on Atwood’s novel; Seasons 2 and 3, and the upcoming 4, continue the story far beyond the moment when Atwood left Offred stepping into a van, her future unknown.

Although she makes a few nods to the series, Atwood lightly leaps over most of it, setting The Testaments 15 years later than The Handmaid’s Tale, both within Gilead and outside it.

The Handmaid’s Tale took place in the early days of Gilead, as its puritanical, fascist government took hold. It’s told from Offred’s point of view, the view of a shocked and traumatized prisoner.

In The Testaments, Gilead is long established and has become the new normal, accreting bureaucracy and fighting pointless wars. This book has three narrators, two young women and one old one, none of them a Handmaid, each narrating her own chapters. Their stories begin very separately, but Atwood will bring them together.

We meet Agnes in her childhood in Gilead, where she is the privileged daughter of one of the Commanders. In line with the nation’s color-coding of females, she’s a schoolgirl wearing pink or plum, according to the season. School, however, does not involve reading, or writing, or arithmetic, all forbidden to women (except the Aunts). Training to become a Wife means lessons in docility and embroidering handkerchiefs. Later in the story, when map-reading becomes crucial, we discover that not only can Agnes not read a map, she has never seen one. (In Gilead, modern technology such as TV and computers exist, but their use is strictly limited to the powerful.)

Agnes isn’t even allowed to learn to cook; that’s the realm of the Marthas, and as a Wife she won’t be dirtying her hands in the kitchen. And, like all good Gilead girls, or “precious flowers,” as they’re called, she’s taught that sex is the dirtiest thing of all, enjoyed only by those “sluts,” the Handmaids.

At first, Agnes doesn’t question Gilead’s strictures because she doesn’t know anything else exists. But her beloved mother dies young, and Agnes ends up in the hands of a very wicked stepmother who arranges to marry her off, at the Gilead-appropriate age of 13, to another Commander. Agnes balks and ends up instead as a novice Aunt, along with her timid but loyal friend Becka.

They grow up looking forward to their required years as Pearl Girls, missionaries in silver dresses who travel in pairs to preach the gospel of Gilead to heathens in such foreign lands as Canada, California and the Republic of Texas. Once they bring back a convert (expectations are not high enough to require multitudes), they’ll be full-fledged Aunts.

Pearl Girls choose new names, Atwood writes, from a list made by the original Aunts of approved “names of products women had liked once and would be reassured by,” so they select names like Aunt Dove, Aunt Immortelle and Aunt Victoria.

Daisy has a very different kind of childhood. She’s an eye-rolling, wisecracking teenager in Toronto, where her hippie parents run a used clothing store and collect vintage cameras. Daisy spends a lot of time at the store because her parents don’t like to leave her on her own, although she’s nearly 16.

The store is frequented largely by sketchy street people, many of whom her parents seem to know, and a steady stream of Pearl Girls, distributing brochures that often refer to Baby Nicole. She’s the great cause celebre of Gilead, ripped from her mother’s arms during a border crossing and still missing years later. (In this world, it’s Canada that has a steady flood of undocumented immigrants across its southern border, and, being Canada, it takes them in.)

Daisy doesn’t really know much about Gilead beyond what she has half-learned in her high school classes. When disaster strikes her family, she will learn more than she ever wanted to know.

And then there’s the third narrator: Aunt Lydia. Yes, that Aunt Lydia. If you know either version of The Handmaid’s Tale, you know about Aunt Lydia, but there’s even more you don’t know.

She is the main character of The Testaments, just as ruthlessly terrifying as ever but much more complex. Atwood fills in her backstory, a harrowing tale of the brutal birth of Gilead. Lydia was a judge, having worked her way out of a childhood among “trailer-park dwellers, sneerers at the police, consorters with the flip side of the criminal justice system” to respectability and success.

When the coup occurs, she finds herself imprisoned in a stadium with thousands of other women: judges, lawyers, doctors, teachers. They’re starved and held in abominable conditions, their only diversion watching the daily executions of 20 of their number. Lydia tells us, “The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”

But she survives, and rises. By cunning and ferocity, she becomes one of the four Founding Aunts of Gilead’s “women’s sphere." She tells us all of this in her chapters, a secret manuscript she has hidden over the decades, written with a purloined pen and ink — even for Aunts, the use of such tools is strictly limited. (The chapters narrated by Agnes and Daisy are cast as oral testimony in some unnamed proceeding.)

Lydia gains and retains her power by recognizing early on the value of secrets. She becomes a kind of J. Edgar Hoover in a plain brown dress, buttering up Gilead’s leaders so she can learn their worst sins — and hoard that knowledge for future use.

Aunt Lydia’s secrets and their uses drive the plot, which accelerates as the lives of the three narrators intertwine. Atwood moves gracefully from dystopian world-building to character study to breathless adventure, her map unerring.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments ends with a chapter that takes place almost two centuries in the future, at an academic conference in Passamaquoddy (formerly Bangor), Maine. Its tone — light academic satire — reminds us that, in the long arc of history, the story of Gilead has been told a thousand times. It is terribly urgent to those who live it and a footnote in the history books.

All tyranny, Atwood shows us, contains the seeds of its own destruction. Internal feuding is a factor, of course; power is not only corrupting but endlessly temporary, never secure. Tyranny is founded on subjugating the other, a process that constantly consumes the tyrant’s attention, because the subjugated never entirely accept their fate. No matter what tyrants choose to judge others inferior — gender, race, religion or whatever other notional difference they dream up — they exhaust their time and resources enforcing those differences. And all the while, inside the walls, there are the unnamed sources, the takers of notes, the smiling masks — and the writers, old women with wry smiles and nothing left to fear, their pens poised to prick.

Cover of 'The Testaments'
Cover of 'The Testaments' [ Doubleday ]

The Testaments

By Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 419 pages, $28.95