'She's a prophet': handmaids gather for Margaret Atwood's midnight launch of The Testaments

Sian Cain
Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

The last time bookshops saw this much action at midnight on a weekday, a certain boy wizard was on the shelves.

“There’s not another Potter out?” a passing man asks the growing queue outside Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly, where a parade of women dressed in red flowing robes and white bonnets are silently gliding by.

The costume of the handmaids – the fertile women ritually raped to repopulate the dystopian theocracy of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale – has a tinge of witchiness to it, though it has become, in a short period of time, iconic for something more: for feminist protest, from Ireland to Argentina; and an instantly recognisable bastion of pop culture that themed a Kylie Jenner party.

Hundreds of fans have lined up to attend the midnight launch of Atwood’s much-anticipated sequel, The Testaments, which will be attended by the Canadian author herself. The ticketless hover nearby, asking if anyone knows when she is due to arrive.

Related: The Testaments, 34 years in the making: the longest gaps between sequels

Alongside the handmaids are a surprise for those yet to read the book: two Pearl Girls dressed in floor-length, silvery gowns, who stay steadfastly in character all night. “She handed me an orange,” says one girl in the queue, bewildered but impressed, cradling the fruit like a precious jewel (and not yet knowing she held a crucial plot detail).

The atmosphere inside the bookshop, just one of many around the world hosting a launch but the only attended by the author herself, would be familiar to any twentysomething who grew up on Harry Potter – but is perhaps unexpected for a sequel to a 34-year old literary novel about the patriarchy. Inside, young women – and the crowd is mostly women in their 20s and 30s, who probably grew up on Potter launches – and the occasional mother or boyfriend are drinking acid-green mocktails, tucking into cupcakes and taking down the patriarchy through craftivism. More than one person says they’re dedicating their Tuesday to reading.

Kasey is there with her mother, Michaela, who gave her the book when she was 13. “I’ve been annoyed ever since then that it ended on such a cliffhanger,” she says. “A potential ending is so exciting.”

Michaela was given the book for Christmas in 1985, “and no one could speak to me because I was so engrossed. So much of what she has predicted has come true, especially with the Christian right in the US. I think she’s a prophet.”

People queue to get a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments outside Waterstones Piccadilly in London. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Indi credits The Handmaid’s Tale as the reason she studies English literature at Cardiff University. Greta, a Lithuanian student, wrote her master’s dissertation on Atwood and Shakespeare. The pair met in the queue, and are delicately embroidering “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, the Latin phrase carved into Offred’s closet by a previous handmaid in her household: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

“I really want to see Atwood in person,” Greta says. “Having examined her work as a literary celebrity and knowing so much about a person you’ve never seen in your life? It is going to be weird.”

Due to the prescience of her novels, and a well-timed and well-reviewed TV adaptation, Atwood has acquired new celebrity at the grand age of 79 – and not just among young people: authors including Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman and Elif Shafak are attending the London launch.

Winterson, who first read Atwood while at university, says the Canadian author has always kept an eye on who is “moving the edges in”.

“Parliament has been prorogued today,” she tells the Guardian. “We’ve got Trump in America, that narcissistic, egotistical, shitface in Downing Street. What is happening? And Atwood is there to instruct us, saying, ‘You know this, inside out.’ It really matters.”

Related: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – first look review

Gaiman says; “The terrifying thing is how well Atwood told us about it 30 years ago. When I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I was a callow 25-year-old who thought we were too sensible for it to happen. Thirty years down the line, I know we’re not all sensible.

“Some of us are idiots. Some of us are scared and can be lead by monsters. And the monsters are scared too. Suddenly you get the Pences, the Trumps, the Greasy Johnsons in power … if nothing else, that book is a canary in our communal cave mind.”

Literature’s most diminutive rockstar comes out an hour before midnight to whoops, not looking quite used to the level of celebrity that has finally come her way. She delivers a short reading, then smiles as the shop unites to count down, and dings a bell at midnight to cheers and a mad rush for books before selfies outside the shop.

Forget Potter, this is Beatles territory. One bookseller says it is not quite that crazy – just last week, people camped outside for a day to see Paul McCartney sign his new children’s book. But, she says, it’s still not far off.