Entertainment Books Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale a winner before anyone reads it
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Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale a winner before anyone reads it

Margaret Atwood at the 2017 Emmy Awards, where The Handmaid's Tale won four gongs including outstanding drama series. Photo: Getty
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Even before its release, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments – the much-anticipated sequel to her 34-year-old dystopian feminist smash The Handmaid’s Tale – is on the Booker Prize shortlist.

Hardly anyone has read the book before its September 10 publication, but what is known is The Testaments is set more than 15 years after the book ended with Handmaid’s hero Offred being bundled into a van.

Because of a “ferocious” non-disclosure agreement, it was an “extraordinarily complicated process” to get hold of the manuscript, said Peter Hay, chair of the Booker judging panel.

The Testaments cover
The Testaments‘ cover. Photo: McClelland & Stewart

He was tight-lipped other than to say the “savage and beautiful novel”  has the same “particular conviction and power” as its prequel.

“The bar is set particularly high for Atwood and she soars over it,” Mr Hay said.

“I can’t wait for everyone to read it.”

Fans are just as keen.

In what may be the biggest publishing event since the last Harry Potter novel, parties and launches are being held at midnight across the world on September 9.

At 11pm, the 79-year-old Canadian author will read an extract from the 432-page book at Waterstones in London, where a “one-night festival” featuring cocktails, theatre and a panel discussion about Atwood by Jeanette Winterson and AM Homes will be held.

It’s a lot of hoopla, but the Booker judges said The Testaments is worth it. They called the book a “terrifying and exhilarating” follow-up to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

“It represents not the work of a writer who might be at the end of her career but it’s like her peak,” Booker judge Liz Calder said.

One publication which has read The Testaments is US site National Public Radio. It ran a September 3 review that said “the women of Gilead are more fascinating than ever”.

The book follows three female protagonists including Aunt Lydia, and “contains a lot of gut punches”, NPR said.

“And a lot of the time, it’s women administering these gut punches to each other.

“Despite the awful men everywhere, one of the main themes The Testaments explores is how women hurt one another.”

The $89,000 Booker Prize will be announced on October 14, with six-time nominee Atwood – she won in 2000 with The Blind Assassin – facing off against Salman Rushdie’s critically-panned Quichotte.

Other shortlisted books include Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, Lucy Ellmann’s 1000-page Ducks, Newburyport  and Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which portrays the final moments of a murdered sex worker.

The prolific Atwood has sold millions of books and while Hulu’s award-winning series made The Handmaid’s Tale a contemporary phenomenon, she once said she is a “serious” writer.

“I never expected to become a popular one.”

Margaret Atwood Emmys 2017
Atwood, right, with The Handmaid’s Tale stars Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley at the 2017 Emmys. Photo: Getty

For someone whose books tackle global and futuristic issues, the author had an unusual childhood being homeschooled in rural Canada, where her entomologist father Carl studied leaf-eating insects.

Her mother, also Margaret, was a dietician said to despise housework so much she was happy to live without mains electricity.

In bad weather, Atwood and her siblings read HG Wells stories and wrote comics about space travel.

She studied at the University of Toronto and Harvard before writing her first novel, 1969’s The Edible Woman.

Margaret Atwood
In the 1970s, Atwood (in Canada) was described as “the Barbra Streisand of the book world”. Photo: Getty

Atwood’s first marriage to writer Jim Polk ended in divorce in 1973. Shortly afterwards Atwood began a relationship with novelist Graeme Gibson, now 85. Still together, the pair share art historian daughter Jess, 42.

Known for her sense of fun, Atwood performed bird calls to a packed theatre during July’s Moon Festival in the UK and is expect

According to reports, “bets are on” as to what the author might do at London’s National Theatre the night after The Testaments launch, when she will discuss the book for the first time.

Actor Lily James is reading an extract at that sold-out event, which is being screened by 500 UK cinemas and has been described by organisers as “comparable to the popularity of a Marvel movie”.