Margaret Atwood at the Waterstones Piccadilly midnight launch and the global press conference of The Testaments. Picture: VINTAGE, PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE/CRAIG SIMMONDS
Margaret Atwood at the Waterstones Piccadilly midnight launch and the global press conference of The Testaments. Picture: VINTAGE, PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE/CRAIG SIMMONDS

A looped video clip of vast machinery in operation greeted journalists arriving at the British Library for the Margaret Atwood press conference. It suggested a hellish world of relentless mechanisation, a future of nightmarish bondage where automatons ruled over mere mortals.

But this was no fictional dystopia, this was the real world, and now. And these were printing presses churning out copies of Atwood’s hotly anticipated new novel, The Testaments. Whole forests were swallowed in seconds. The handmaid industrial complex had arrived, slouching towards Gilead to be born.

The hype has been relentless. “The literary event of the year,” the Guardian declared, and the rest of the London press agreed. Shortlisted for the Booker before a single copy had been sold, the chair of the competition’s judging panel, Peter Florence, has said of the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: “A savage and beautiful novel, and it speaks to us today, all around the world, with particular conviction and power. I can’t wait for everyone to read it.”

As they no doubt will, thanks largely to the success of the acclaimed 2017 TV series based on Atwood’s 1985 novel. That adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes, gave the book a new lease of life, and it subsequently spent 16 weeks back on the UK bestseller charts. More than 8-million copies have been sold globally in English, and, according to Penguin Random House UK, it was the third-best-selling fictional paperback title in 2017 — a remarkable feat for a book published more than three decades earlier.

A fourth season of the TV series, scheduled for release in 2020, was confirmed in July. Meanwhile, it has been reported that MGM and Hulu are working on a separate adaptation of The Testaments, which is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Inevitably, there have been comparisons with the hoopla of Harry Potter. Hundreds of fans queued outside the Piccadilly branch of the Waterstones bookstore chain on Monday evening for the midnight launch of The Testaments.

There were similar events elsewhere, and more planned for the weeks ahead, but Atwood herself would be at this one. After she read a short extract from her novel, a countdown began, a bell was rung, the store’s doors opened, and the crowd, mainly women in their 20s and 30s, surged inside to get their hands on the book.

Also making an appearance outside the bookstore were the troops of silent women in the red robes and white bonnets worn by the “handmaids”, the fertile women ritually raped to repopulate Gilead, the postapocalyptic American theocracy in which the novels are set.

The uniform is now recognised as a symbol of resistance against the rolling back of women’s rights, particularly in Donald Trump’s America. On Monday, though, its presence was celebratory. Adding to the festival atmosphere were in-store events, including an appearance by the actress Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia in the series, and panel discussions with authors Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman, Elif Shafak, Temi Oh and AM Homes.

Although I could not continue with the story of Offred, I could continue with three other people and to tell the story of the beginning of the end.
Margaret Atwood

The following morning, a spry Atwood, who turns 80 in November, was still bemused at being the focus of such attention. “Oh,” she told journalists, “London loves a happening. And it is quite amazing how people will turn up in the middle of the night to see a big pile of books revealed ... it was lots of fun and people had a pretty grand time. And there were T-shirts, there were T-shirts.”

How did she feel about the literary “rock star” treatment?

“Well, considering the lives of rock stars ... and I haven’t yet died of an opiate overdose. Well, not yet. There’s time. I think that this kind of thing can be quite ruinous for a 35-year-old because ... where do you go from there? In my case, we kind of know the answer. We know the plot. So, am I overwhelmed by it? I am very pleased and grateful to the readers who have stuck with me for all these years.”

Those readers have, over those years, repeatedly demanded a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and Atwood would always refuse. It was not possible, she’d argue, to continue with the novel’s single narrative voice.

“But,” she said, “as time went on, instead of moving away from Gilead, we started moving towards it, particularly in the US. I re-examined that position and, although I could not continue with the story of Offred, I could continue with three other people and to tell the story of the beginning of the end [of Gilead].”

That fictional downfall is still a couple of centuries hence. But the lurch towards an all-too real nightmarish future began, she said, during the filming of the TV series (Atwood was a consulting producer).

Demonstrators dressed in Handmaid's Tale costumes hold anti-Trump placards during a demonstration in London, in 2019. Picture: BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES/MARY TURNER
Demonstrators dressed in Handmaid's Tale costumes hold anti-Trump placards during a demonstration in London, in 2019. Picture: BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES/MARY TURNER

“It goes back, probably, to 2015 and 2016, writing the summary ... and the US election happens in November 2016, at which point everybody in the cast and team woke up and said, ‘We’re in a different show now.’ Not that anything in the show changed. The frame changed.”

The show first aired on April 26, 2017. A fortnight later, the first “handmaid” protests appeared, in Austin, Texas, where an all-male legislature was considering a raft of new anti-abortion laws. The protests spread — and would continue to do so, Atwood said, so long as men are in charge of women’s bodies.

“So, if everything was fair and equitable, and government really was by consent of the governed, only potentially pregnant women would be able to vote on these matters,” she said.

“If you look at the legislative moves made by members of different states in the US you could see that some of them are almost [in Gilead]. But what these restrictive laws about women’s bodies are claiming is that the state owns your body. There is a parallel equation for men and that would be the draft, or conscription, where the state says that this body is now going to the war.

But what these restrictive laws about women’s bodies are claiming is that the state owns your body
Margaret Atwood

“But when they do that, they pay for your clothing, lodging, food, medical expenses, and they give you a salary. So I say unto them, ‘if you want to conscript women’s bodies in this way you should pay for it.’ As it is, you’re forcing women to deliver babies, it’s enforced childbirth, and you’re not paying for any of it. I think that’s very cheap. It’s cheap labour, and that’s a pun.”

Away from The Testaments, the other current literary event is Edna O’Brien’s Girl. It is not speculative fiction, but a terrifying novel set in an unnamed but recognisable Nigeria that tackles the full-on horror of the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings.

After reading about one of the schoolgirls who had escaped her jihadist captors with her baby, O’Brien set off for Nigeria to research the novel, stashing thousands of dollars in her underwear “to give to people who could help me to arrange things”, as she put it.

O’Brien is now 88. Few novelists would undertake such a potentially hazardous venture, let alone a woman her age.

There are no plans for a TV adaptation of Girl, but that, as ever, is another story.

• The Testaments is published in SA by Chatto & Windus.