MARGARET ATWOOD WANTS TO KNOW MORE ABOUT The Bachelorette. We’re chatting in her publisher’s office in Toronto when I mention the dating show where 30-some men vie for the affection of a single woman, all on camera. She has questions: “Why are they even participating in this?” “What if they’re rejected?” “I’m wondering if she’s just pretending to go along with it?”
There is an irony here, observing Atwood equate the show to Sartre’s adage “Hell is other people” come to life. She is, after all, known for a book that describes one of the most brutal mating rituals in the canon. In her landmark 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a totalitarian theocracy has taken over the U.S. in the midst of a fertility crisis. Offred, one of few women who can still bear children, is forced to participate in reproductive- slavery ceremonies in the Republic of Gilead. Offred’s story ends with a notoriously ambiguous cliff-hanger: she steps into a van that will take her either to fresh hell or to freedom. For 34 years, Atwood, now 79, has deflected readers’ questions about her protagonist’s fate. But on Sept. 10, she will publish The Testaments, a new book that promises to resolve that mystery and many more.
The Testaments arrives at the peak of Atwood’s prominence. In 2017, her 32-year-old novel soared back to the best-seller list when it became one of a handful of classic dystopias that seemed to portend troubling themes of the current era and evoke prescient anxieties about women’s rights. Three months after Donald Trump’s Inauguration, Hulu premiered an adaptation with Atwood’s involvement that has won 11 Emmys. Women’s-rights demonstrators around the globe—at pro-choice rallies in South America and Europe, at Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in the U.S.—have donned the handmaid uniform of crimson cloaks and white bonnets to make their case. Atwood’s voice has become a rallying cry against climate change and threats to equality—last year she headlined a summit on the intersection of those issues, named after a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale. Protest signs at the 2017 Women’s March bore the slogan MAKE MARGARET ATWOOD FICTION AGAIN, her name now synonymous with resistance.
Atwood long rejected calls for a sequel because, she says, she knew she couldn’t re-create Offred’s voice. But as she saw the world change, she realized Offred wasn’t the only way back into the story. She began drafting The Testaments partway through 2016.
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September 16, 2019