Margaret Atwood is a writer of rare distinction, and a well-seasoned one. Author of over 50 books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays - including, of course, her 1985 patriarchal icon, The Handmaid's Tale - her knowledge, intelligence, and encyclopaedic interests can weave all manner of narrative threads. I remember reviewing her wittily off-beat version of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus in these pages almost 20 years ago. Atwood is a literary star.
This new collection of short stories, Old Babes in the Wood, delivers unwavering evidence of Atwood's precise art, exploring a diversity of intensely observed characters and themes, from ancient myth to modern domesticity, with a cool, compassionate eye and occasionally wicked wit. I can't recall having come across a writer who could capture patterns of practical and theoretical life better than Atwood does here.
Atwood grew up in 1950s Canada, where the arts were colonially constrained in similar ways to the Australian experience, but she was fortunate to have free thinking parents who encouraged her to make her own choices, untethered from the usual gender stereotypes. Her father was an environmental scientist, and the family often accompanied him on lonely bush excursions where his precociously word-driven daughter was able to explore the natural world.
"Peggy" - Atwood's family appellation - was always determined to be a writer, although she was aware of the social and cultural barriers impeding this ambition. At University in Toronto, when starting to publish poetry and stories under the name M. E. Atwood, she was using her initials in the style of T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, but more importantly, attempting to disguise her gender identity. The choice for women, according to Atwood at the time, and recorded in Rosemary Sullivan's insightful early biography, Starting Out, was clear: 'You could write and be classified as neurotic, or you could get married and be fulfilled. Being fulfilled sounded very dull.'
Ironically, the 15 stories in this collection are bookended by a series of smoothly sequential stories following the less-than-dull lives of a long-term married couple. Husband and wife, Tig and Nell, are previously well-established Atwood characters, which is perhaps why we learn little of their background here. At one point they are said to have been giving talks on a nature-tour cruise ship, "birds for him, butterflies for her: their hobbies", and elsewhere: "Nell and Tig were away at the time, in Ireland, doing whatever they used to do on such trips."
Unsurprisingly, Nell plays the leading narrative role, with one story, concerning grief, rich with black humoured wit as Nell consoles herself over the death of their cat by writing him into her version of Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur ... More things are wrought by purrs / Than this world dreams of ..." And more of that ilk. As the Tig and Nell stories chronologically expand, their sepia background serves to sharpen the tones of family and friends.
Such as John and Francois, ex-WWII companions: "one lanky, explosive Irishman; one short, roundish, genial Frenchman". Tig and Nell had rented a house in France which belonged to John and his exquisitely tasteful wife, who is elsewhere and silent. The story is titled "Two Scorched Men", and told in the first person by Nell, who is intrigued by the unlikely association of two close friends, one full of laughter and the other consumed by rage, both terribly scarred by war.
This theme returns at length, and is hauntingly explored, when Nell, now old and alone, finds herself sorting through boxes of papers and relics belonging to Tig's father, who had been a brigadier in the Canadian Army in WWII, crushed into a kind of fake survival by horrific battles as the Germans retreated "blowing up towns as they went, leaving wreckage and starvation in their wake". Intensely aware that Tig must have seen the material before but never mentioned it, Nell finds letters and scraps of poetry, somehow scribbled under fire, and becomes increasingly determined to discover whatever meaning she can. It is achingly sad but fluently shaped with intricate detail.
There is so much more in this collection: a woman who inherits the soul of a snail, a séance-induced chat with George Orwell, and a group of whip-smart academic women of beyond a certain age, chatting over drinks and nibbles about anything but the subject they are supposed to be discussing - correcting the gender balance, perhaps - while they wait for their keynote speaker to arrive.
Atwood is an artistic phenomenon, erudite and elegantly clever. She can deconstruct complex ideas with thoughtfully accessible sentences, create diverse characters with depth and diligence, and eerily convey a sense of what remains unsaid in emotionally charged exchanges. Such writers were always valuable, but none more so than in our presently truth-forsaken age.
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