‘Moral Disorder’ by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 stars

All the short stories in the collection Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood focus on the life of the same woman, Nell, and her relationship with her family. Particularly when the stories are told in the first person, they are enthralling and immersive. The more stories we read, the more we learn not only about Nell, but also about her partner, sister and parents. Their personalities become gradually clearer, and their tribulations are more often than not tangible and authentic. The least gripping stories are the ones narrated in the third person.

The collection opens with the story ‘The Bad News’. It focuses on an old couple who has a different outlook on the news that they read and listen to. Only later in the collection do readers learn that Nell is the woman telling some of the stories, including this one, and the protagonist of the collection. Albeit short, the story paints a clear picture of the couple’s personalities and their long-lasting relationship. It’s duly sarcastic at times.

The moods of the characters are as palpable in ‘The Art of Cooking and Serving’. The narrator recalls how, when she was a child, she knitted clothes for the sibling that her mother was carrying. She had to help with many of the chores, because her mother had to spend a long time resting. Hers was a high-risk pregnancy. Despite a long time having passed since the events, the confusion and fear the narrator felt is tangible. It was after that moment that she decided to exist not only to serve others, but also to become more independent. Change is a main topic in ‘The Other Place’ as well. The narrator recalls how she kept moving from one place to another as a young adult and the people she met along the way.

One of my favourite stories in the collection, ‘My Last Duchess’, is both an absorbing reminiscence about school days and a social assessment. The narrator recalls her time at school, in particular the analysis of a poem during English classes, while duly examining how women were treated and perceived in society.

“To yell back at the boys was brazen, to ignore them was supposed to be dignified, though it didn’t feel dignified, it felt degrading.”

‘The Headless Horseman’ is another story that stands out. It focuses on the ups and downs of the relationship between two sisters. The narrator remembers a time when she dressed up as the headless horseman for Halloween and connects the outfit with various moments she shared with her sister. Their bond feels incredibly real, thanks to a great character exploration.

The relationship between Nell and her sister is the highlight of even one of the three stories that are not as attention-grabbing and intimate. All happen to be narrated in the third person. In the ‘White Horse’, readers learn that Nell once got a horse while living in a farm with Tig. The story is incredibly dull until the moment that her sister comes to visit and her tribulations take over. ‘Monopoly’ is about the inception of Nell and Tig’s relationship and delves into the change in social conventions in the 1960s. And ‘The Moral Disorder’ focuses on Nell and Tig’s life at the farm.

Nell’s parents play an important role in the collection too. In ‘The Labrador Fiasco’, a moving connection is established between a book that her parents were reading and her father’s fate. ‘The Boys at the Lab’, on the other hand, is mostly about a mother and a daughter’s need for sharing past memories. When the details about certain occasions evade us, we can always turn them into fictional stories.

While penning stories about a family, Margaret Atwood also delved into life in the 20th century. Moral Disorder fuses the intimate with the historical with genuine ease, even if some of the short stories are more fascinating than others.

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