The Testaments confirms Margaret Atwood’s pop icon status

The Toronto author's highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is more thrilling actioner than literary meditation


MARGARET ATWOOD: IN CONVERSATION on Monday (September 16) at Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). 7 pm. Sold out. stlc.com.


It’s official. Margaret Atwood is a star. Not just a literary star – a pop icon, and she appears to be relishing her rising status in the cultural universe.

See her grinning from ear to ear on stage at the Emmys as the TV series based on the The Handmaid’s Tale scores a victory. Notice her nearly two-million-strong Twitter following, which she lovingly nurtures. Sure, she’s written over 50 books and won every literary award that matters. But who would have thought that a science nerd and humble poet could rise to such heights.

Credit her willingness to engage in any medium. She executive-produced that Emmy-winning TV series and collaborated with Jennifer Baichwal on the documentary Payback, based on her book about debt. And in the book world, she’ll take on any genre, even penning the graphic novel Angel Catbird.

Her new book, The Testaments (McClelland & Stewart, 432 pages, $35), already breathlessly anticipated like no other book this century – possibly ever – seals the deal. It’s a page-turning thrill ride of a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, more actioner than literary meditation.

That’s not to say it isn’t a terrific read. In the new work, Atwood offers three female characters struggling in the dystopian theocracy Gilead, two of whom are giving testimony (where, we’re not sure) and a third who has secretly written and stashed a diary that she hides in a library book. Crucially, none of these witnesses is a Handmaid, among those imprisoned as mere walking wombs in Atwood’s original story.

Instead, Atwood focuses on the ways in which the Gilead regime is crumbling and the resistance is taking shape. This is not a spoiler. The Handmaid’s Tale ends with an epilogue that makes it plain that the regime inevitably falls. We just never know how – until now.

One witness is a teenager living in Canada, who discovers when her parents are murdered that she was smuggled into the country as an infant from Gilead and has become the poster girl for the regime’s anti-revolutionary efforts. She returns to Gilead – she must in order to stay alive – to join the Mayday uprising.

A second witness, Agnes, is the daughter of a high-ranking commander. She’s being groomed to marry – in Gilead the preparation starts as soon as a girl starts menstruating – but she refuses and is given the chance to become an Aunt, one of a seemingly privileged few women who train all the females in the regime and keep them in line.

Aunt Lydia is the third character and by far the most intriguing. In ways that highlight the author’s psychological acumen, Atwood describes Lydia’s backstory and how she became the terrifying creature that she is. We learn that there was a heavy price to pay for her privilege and she’s plotting her own revenge on the regime.

Through it all, Atwood writes with a brutal economy. Descriptions of the “particicutions” where Handmaids literally tear apart their victims – forget those relatively easygoing TV hangings – are harrowing. Aunt Lydia’s early incarceration is described in almost deadpan fashion and the crushing impact of sexual assault is revealed in devastating, plainspoken detail.

The Testaments Margaret Atwood

But Atwood can be funny even under these circumstances. Every name checked has its raison d’être: the Schlafly Café, the Hildegard Library, to name just a few. And the last tension-packed section of the book, which tracks an escape attempt out of Gilead, reads like a film script. There are probably plans for just that. Doubtless, that will suit Atwood just fine. She is fully prepared to embrace her role as purveyor of popular culture.

The Testaments couldn’t be what it is had she not been deeply involved in the TV series. Atwood parlayed her power as executive producer, making sure the writers kept Aunt Lydia alive in the second and third seasons, lest her demise get in the way of the written sequel. And she wrote that sequel assuming that most of her potential readers would have seen the Hulu TV show (it airs on Bravo in Canada) based on her original 1985 novel. There’s an offhand reference to June, the name of her TV series protagonist, for example, even though in the original she’s called Offred and her original name is never given.

The 1985 novel is told from Offred’s point of view. It is more meditative, it has way more mood and gloominess than The Testaments. The new book seems tailor-made for her television audience.

Atwood’s been a literary star for a very long time. In 2003, I interviewed her on stage after the release of Oryx And Crake. I was properly terrified, prepared way more questions than necessary and fretted that she, who does not suffer fools gladly, would find me to be one. But she was funny and charming. At one point, I looked out into the audience and everyone’s face was pasted with a gobsmacked look of awe and admiration. And she, deservedly, basked in the glow.

As her star soared, there was a period when she seemed to lose political cred. Her support for the alleged sexual harasser prof Steven Galloway, her grumbling about the development near her Annex home and her ill-advised Globe And Mail column about being a “bad feminist,” to say nothing about the Twitter backlash she got when Emmy-winning Elisabeth Moss called her an inspiring feminist, tarnished her shiny image. But that was relatively local stuff that few outside Canada cared about.

Everywhere else she’s a bona fide pop star, one who knows her audience and honours it. I can’t count how many times authors have said to me that they write entirely for themselves and don’t really care if there’s a large readership for the work – that’s something for publishers to worry about.

But not only does Atwood care what her global audience thinks – she says she wrote this book because readers were desperate to know what happens after Offred steps into that van – she’s now written a novel that’s hitched to a TV series, reads like a thriller and is guaranteed to garner her more fans.

If that troubles you, don’t worry – Atwood promises that her next book will be a collection of poems.

@susangcole

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