Margaret Atwood thrills fans by reading from her latest novel

Margaret Atwood wowed fans by reading from her latest novel, The Testaments, minutes before it went on sale at midnight.

The Canadian author treated around 400 book lovers to a short reading from the start of her hotly-anticipated follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Shortly before midnight, fans at Waterstones in Piccadilly, central London, cheered as Atwood stepped onto the podium, smiling and waving.

“Thank you very much, that’s lovely. And I understand we are doing a countdown to midnight, so I may have to read really fast,” she joked to the room.

Moments later they counted down from 10 as the clock struck midnight, when Atwood rang a small silver bell and handmaids cloaked in red whisked away a blue velvet covering to unveil the new book.

The author then posed holding her latest work and hugged staff members.

The crowd also heard from actor Romola Garai, who read aloud a short passage from the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s highly-anticipated sequel is set in the same fictional universe around 15 years on from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has seen enormous popularity through its adaptation into a hit Netflix series.

Set in the republic of Gilead, the dystopia centres around three women who share their experiences as its toxic power structure starts to rot from within.

Margaret Atwood's new book, The Testaments, on display
Margaret Atwood’s new book, The Testaments, on display (Jemma Crew/PA)

The novel is inspired by readers’ questions over the 34 years since The Handmaid’s Tale first hit the shelves, as well as “the world we’ve been living in”, Atwood has said.

Earlier, six handmaids and two Pearl Girls dressed in silver walked through the doors of the bookshop, followed by around 400 guests, shortly after 8pm on Monday night.

Green, blue and white placards reading “Free the women of Gilead” and “Reading and writing are human rights” lined the storefront to mark the launch.

Fans, keen to be among the first to get their hands on the sought-after follow-up, enjoyed a “one-night festival” of speeches, crafts and Atwood appreciation, washed down by themed cocktails.

Commenting on the relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale during a panel discussion, author Neil Gaiman said: “The purposes of science fiction and speculative fiction sometimes are to predict or sometimes are to be a warning to us, and I think what Peggy (Atwood) really gave us was a warning.

“And I love the fact that the book is there, because possibly without it we wouldn’t be quite so aware of the warning signs. If nothing else that book is a canary in our communal cave/mine.”

Rosie Smeaton, 28, one of the first dozen book-lovers in the queue before the store opened, was treated to the tickets as a birthday present.

The life-long Atwood fan from Wanstead, east London, said: “I have loved The Handmaid’s Tale since I was about 14. It’s terrifying and I adore it, and when I found out there was going to be a new book I nearly lost my mind.”

She added: “It feels like we are regressing with women’s rights a little bit, and we are not where we would like to be, and I think the message is even more important now than it has been for a while.”

The book is shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, requiring an “extraordinarily complex” process of non-disclosure agreements so that the judging panel could read it before publication.

Atwood, 79, previously won the prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000.

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