Thirty-four years after the publication of her startlingly prescient novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood is delivering its potent sequel and, just like its predecessor, it’s already set off a flurry of anticipatory chatter. Perhaps the most pressing question is what the The Testaments means in the larger context of the Hulu adaptation, which used the original tome as source material for the first season but then extrapolated from it to build out the next 26 episodes, especially given the recent news that the network has acquired the rights to The Testaments.
Atwood’s latest book, which picks up about 13 years after the end of season 3 — there aren’t solid timelines in the world of Handmaids, but the existence of a few key characters in Testaments allows for casual mathematics — lives in the exact same universe as both the literary and television versions of Handmaids and, according to the author, will inform the screenwriters as they build out season 4.
“What I have given the writers’ room, which no one is allowed into including me, is a whole new whiteboard and a bunch of new characters,” Atwood, who will serve as a consultant on season 4, tells EW from her office in Toronto. “The story of the characters in the show is left open at the moment, so it’s up to [showrunner] Bruce [Miller] and the highly competent team locked in the room as to how they get those people into position.”
The Testaments enters the world stage amidst a political environment that could be described as Atwoodian during its better days, so it feels like no accident that the novel outlines the early stages of Gilead’s juicy, cathartic, and long-awaited downfall. Those who read Handmaids all the way through the epilogue are well aware that the regime will end, and the sequel gives us a surprising play-by-play that falls closer to the government’s inner sanctum than most could have predicted.
The book, which has already been long-listed for the Man Booker prize (“I expect I am representing the Old Bitty cohort,” jokes Atwood of the nomination, “which is shrinking by the minute”), splits the plot between three narrators: Aunt Lydia, a young Gileadian girl who becomes increasingly disenchanted with the country she was raised to worship, and a teenager in Toronto whose family is entrenched in Mayday’s operations (yes, Mayday is still going).
It’s possible to (attempt to) discern all sorts of deeper meaning about why the author chose to write this particular novel in this particular time. Given how beautifully and frighteningly she seemed to predict the erosion of women’s rights in America, what does Margaret Atwood know now that the rest of us don’t? She insists it’s far less calculating than that — she’d resisted the writing of Testaments and attempted other unsuccessful novels before realizing the thing that must be done. Atwood likens it to swimming in a very cold lake: “You put your foot in, you take your foot out, you think, am I really gonna do this? And then you have to run in screaming.”
She’s also quick to point out that the plot to take down Gilead, and the way in which one of the young narrators connects to present-day Handmaid’s Tale, was never a grand scheme. She only began putting the story together in the last two to three years, using research assistants to help go through the original Handmaids novel, and the current series, line by line. She never knew how Gilead was going to end, reminding all of us that “the only reason for writing novels is to find out what happens — if you already know, why would you bother?”
The portions of The Testaments that will likely come as the biggest surprise to readers are those narrated by Aunt Lydia. We’re all familiar with her outward demeanor, her ability to both terrorize women into becoming murderers and manipulate them into thinking that she cares about anyone’s well-being, mostly due to Ann Dowd’s commanding — and Emmy-winning — performance. This sequel offers not only a deeper glimpse into her pre-Gilead life (a warning to the continuity purists: It doesn’t quite match up with the flashbacks provided in season 3, episode 8 of the series) but her inner monologue.
As it turns out, Lydia has some sass to her, not unlike the onscreen version of June (Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches). Five minutes into a conversation with Atwood and it’s clear where she pulled inspiration for this wit — that’s not to say that Atwood herself is sassy in the manner of Aunt Lydia, but rather that she’s so intelligent and quick to honesty that you can easily be left with earth-shattering doubts: Whether you’ve ever analyzed a book properly, whether you’ve ever had a grasp on world history, and why you ever deigned to consider yourself qualified to prepare questions for someone of her stature.
Her tendency to answer questions with marginally-related anecdotes and lessons provides insights into The Testaments’ influences that would never have been uncovered otherwise. Ask about her predetermined plans for Aunt Lydia’s arc? She’ll tell you about a British battle reenactment. Ask about Donald Trump? She’ll tell you about the history of fascism. In the midst of a series of quiz questions directed at this reporter (another terrifying byproduct of being in Atwood’s conversational presence: The constant interior thought of Oh my God, am I supposed to answer this?), she explained in most Atwoodian terms her philosophy towards crafting the occasionally frustrating and always complicated allegiances of the women in Gilead.
“If you look at regimes that have come and gone over the years, you’re going to see that among the Nazis and Stalinists, a certain kind of education was prioritized,” she explains. “Don’t think we’re exempt. Every outlet teaches itself in the best light and tells people that this is the only way. So it was when, long ago, the Christians got control of education.”
Out on the road, among her legions of fans, Atwood fields even more questions — occasionally about plot points of her books but mostly of a more existential nature. Immediately after Trump was elected, a resounding theme was: Is this the worst thing that’s ever happened? (Her answer, in short, is no.) These days, people ask if there’s hope, or if we’re all doomed.
The Testaments offers plenty of bleak scenarios just like its predecessors (there is a particularly scarring description of Lydia’s capture in the early days of the coup, involving a stadium and thousands of women starved, tortured, and worse), but the building blocks of the regime’s takedown replaces the show’s feeling of powerlessness with the idea that maybe there is something that can be done.
Atwood predicts that as she promotes this sequel, she will receive plenty more questions on the topic of hope, which are in stark contrast from the queries she received in the early days of her career.
“In the ’70s I was getting, do you hate men?” she deadpans. “And sometimes a different version: Do you like men? Those questions are quite easy to answer…some men. I’m not too keen on Hitler and Stalin, but Albert Schweitzer had some pretty good ideas.”
The Testaments leaves plenty of its plot points open to interpretation (there is an epilogue similar in structure to that in Handmaids) and the ambiguity, combined with the passionate fanbase that the Hulu series has attracted, has the potential to invite reader questions of its own. On that topic, Atwood minces absolutely no words.
“Thing thing about a book is it’s got these things called covers,” she says. “If you don’t like the book, you can close them.”