Judging Margaret Atwood’s Top Secret New Novel

Judging Margaret Atwood’s Top Secret New Novel

LONDON — In July, the author Xiaolu Guo was expecting the delivery of a book that would not be published until September: Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments,” the highly anticipated follow-up to “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Guo was getting her copy so early because she is a judge for this year’s Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. There was just one problem, Guo said in an interview on Tuesday: When the courier turned up, she was late getting home from the airport. The courier refused to give the book to her brother and sister-in-law, who were visiting from China.

Guo missed the courier’s visit the next day, too, as she was out running errands. By the time she finally got the book, she was furious, she said.

“For me, it was quite over the top, the whole security issue,” Guo added, laughing.

The secrecy around Atwood’s new novel, which is on the Booker Prize shortlist that was announced this week, has complicated the judging process this year. The prize’s organizer had to sign a nondisclosure agreement on behalf of all the judges, said Peter Florence, the chairman of the judging panel.

Each judge was hand delivered a watermarked copy. Florence said he had received his at his home “way up in the Welsh mountains.”

“It took a courier about a day to get there,” he added.

MacGregor said a courier had arrived at her hotel in Melbourne, Australia, when she out playing a concert. “He waited for me for hours in the lobby,” she added.

When the judges opened their packages, each found a stack of unbound copy paper. Each judge’s name had been printed across every page in large gray letters. It made the book slightly difficult to read, Guo said.

“I think we all felt, ‘This is such a rigmarole, it better be worth it,’” MacGregor said. “And then of course when we opened it: ‘Oh, yeah, it was worth it.’”

“The Testaments” is set 15 years after the events of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and in the same place: Gilead, the religious autocracy where women are stripped of their rights and many are kept in sexual slavery.

The sequel “is a kind of spy thriller about a mole inside Gilead” working to bring down the evil empire, Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review of the novel for The New York Times. “Atwood’s sheer assurance as a storyteller makes for a fast, immersive narrative that’s as propulsive as it is melodramatic,” she added.

Aufa Hirsch, a broadcaster and another Booker judge, said in a telephone interview that the hardest thing about judging “The Testaments” was not the secrecy, but the fact that it’s a sequel. “What I find quite difficult is Atwood created a world — this incredibly brilliant, original dystopia — and she did that in the first book,” Hirsch said. “How much does this book stand alone in terms of what it offers that’s new?”

She said she didn’t know the answer yet, only that it was a “brilliant book” that spoke to today’s political climate.

Hirsch said that she had considered shredding her copy after the judging was complete, but came to realize that doing so would be a mistake. She said she had heard that Atwood changed the book after the judges received it, so those copies would be “very valuable.”

She joked that it was her retirement plan. “It’s actually quite crumpled, but it’s all there,” she said.

Two other people who had a brush with the manuscript were less convinced it was a gold mine: Guo’s brother and sister-in-law. When she finally received the book in July, she jokingly told them not to try to sell it. “If I ever see this in China …” she said, in a reference to pirated copies.

Who was this author everyone was making such a fuss about, they asked? Guo told them.

They said they had never heard of her.

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