ATWOOD, Margaret (born 1939) Canadian writer of novels, short stories and poems
Atwood is a poet as well as a novelist, and her gifts of precise observation and exact description illuminate all her work. She is fascinated by the balance of power between person and person, and by the way our apparently coherent actions and sayings actually float on a sea of turbulent unseen emotion. Her books often follow the progress of relationships, or of one person’s self-discovery. The heroine of Life Before Man, for example, is caught up in a sexual quadrilateral (one of whose members, her lover, has just committed suicide), and our interest is as much in seeing how she copes with her own chaotic feelings as in the progress of the affair itself. In Cat’s Eye a middle-aged painter returns to Toronto, remembers her dismal childhood and adolescence there, and finally comes to terms with the bully who made her life miserable as a schoolchild and with that bully’s appalling, manipulative mother. In The Blind Assassin an elderly woman attempts to understand the secret history of her family and to unravel the enigma of her sister’s death many decades before. Many writers have tackled similar themes, but Atwood’s books give a unique impression that each moment, each feeling, is being looked at through a microscope, as if the swirling, nagging ‘real’ world has been momentarily put aside for something more urgent which may just – her characters consistently put hope above experience – make sense of it.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1985)
This dazzling dystopian novel, at once Atwood’s most savage book and a departure from her usual Canadian stamping grounds, is set in the twenty-first-century Republic of Gilead. In this benighted state, fundamentalist Christianity rules and the laws are those of Genesis. Women are chattels: they have no identity, no privacy and no happiness except what men permit them. Offred, for example, is a Handmaid, and her life is devoted to one duty only: breeding. In Gilead public prayers and hangings are the norm; individuality – even looking openly into a man’s face or reading a woman’s magazine – is punished by mutilation, banishment or death. The book shows Offred’s struggle to keep her sanity and her identity in such a situation, and her equivocal relationship with the feminist Underground which may be Gilead’s only hope. Atwood’s other novels include Surfacing, The Edible Woman, Bodily Harm, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake, in which she returns to the dystopian science fiction of The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Penelopiad, a playful retelling of the myth of Odysseus and Penelope. Dancing Girls, Wilderness Tips and Bluebeard’s Egg contain short stories. The Journals of Susannah Moodie and True Stories are poetry collections, and her Selected Poems are also available. Good Bones is a collection of funny, feminist retellings of such fables as The Little Red Hen, Cinderella and Hamlet.
Thematically & Stylistically Similar Books for Further Reading:
Alias Grace (an exploration of women’s sexuality and social roles wrapped up in a gripping story of a nineteenth-century housemaid who may or may not have been a murderess).
to The Handmaid’s Tale: George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four.
to Surfacing: Angela Carter, Heroes and Villains; Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries.
to Cat’s Eye: Bernice Rubens, Our Father; Lynne Reid Banks, Children at the Gate; Alison Lurie, Imaginary Friends.
to Atwood’s work in general: >> Doris Lessing, Martha Quest; >> Nadine Gordimer, A Sport of Nature; >> Saul Bellow, Herzog.
Source Credits: Nick Rennison, Good Reading Guide: Discover Your Next Great Read, Bloomsbury Publishing, Seventh Edition