To pick up a book by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood and to discover a female protagonist doesn’t come as a surprise. The many struggles faced by women are a common theme in her books, irrespective of them being categorised as literary, historical fiction, dystopian or myth retellings. The female characters born solely of her imagination or inspired by real-life events are more often than not memorable, which is not only the result of a believable characterisation, but also of an alluring writing style.
Born on 18 November 1939 in Ottawa, Margaret Atwood is the author of eighteen novels, fifteen books of poetry and ten short story collections, having also written non-fiction and children’s books. So far, I’ve read seven of her books. Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. Moreover, she has also taught English Literature at various Canadian and American universities.
It’s not wrong to say that she is one of the most celebrated Canadian writers. The extensive number of prizes that Atwood has won and been nominated for is not a coincidence. She has been the recipient of the Booker Prize twice. In 2019, she shared the prize with Bernardine Evaristo, causing an uproar. Awarding the Booker to The Testaments may have been unfair. The accolade that The Blind Assassin got in 2000 I consider much more suitable, however.
When novels meet feminism
The Blind Assassin is a compelling novel that mixes family drama and mystery. Laura Chase drove a car off a bridge some days after the end of the Second World War. Two witnesses claimed that she turned the car intentionally, but the police considered that her death could have also been the result of an accident. What really led to Laura’s death? The question is answered via a first-person narration by Iris, Laura’s sister, various news pieces and a short book written my Laura. The structure of the book consistently arouses curiosity.
As Iris recollects past events, readers learn more about the lives of the two sisters and how they were affected by historical events, social expectations and the patriarchal attitudes of the time. Iris believably sounds like an old woman remembering previous moments from her life. The various members of her family truly come to life, thanks to an enthralling writing style, full of meaningful metaphors. The novel spans many decades and delves into the many difficulties faced by women in the 20th century.
Women’s agency is also a key topic in The Handmaid’s Tale. A dystopian novel and work of speculative fiction, it takes place in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and repressive state that introduced a puritanical society in the US, where there’s a problem of infertility. In this society, individuals are set apart according to functions, each group having to follow specific rules. Handmaids are fertile women who are used by the Commanders, men who are part of the elite, to breed. Offred, the narrator of the novel and one of the handmaids, not only reports on present-day events, but also recalls the time before the inception of the repressive state. Margaret Atwood penned a powerful and riveting book, full of well-drawn characters.
Unfortunately, The Testaments, a book set in the same world, is not as affecting and poignant. Although it’s gripping and a page-turner, it lacks emotion, details and character exploration. Told from three points of view – Aunt Lydia, Agnes Jemima (a girl who grew up in Gilead) and Daisy (a girl who lived in Canada) –, it features great insights about the beginning and the disintegration of Gilead. The plot is too predictable, though. The book is only worthy of reading thanks to Aunt Lydia’s perspective.
Based on a true story, Alias Grace is a fictional book about Grace Marks and her role in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper. The novel starts in 1851. Grace is 24 years old and has been in jail for eight years, serving a life sentence. Some years later, she starts receiving the visit of doctor Simon Jordon, whose medical speciality is the “diseases of the mind and brain”. In spite of not wanting to talk to him at first, Grace decides to tell him part of the story of her life. The narration goes back and forward in time, dragging slightly at times.
The majority of the book is narrated in the first person by Grace, and her inner thoughts are beautifully presented. Some chapters are also written in the third person from Dr Simon’s perspective, though, while others consist of letters, excerpts of news pieces and other documents. This assortment of ways of storytelling makes the novel even more stimulating. It’s impossible not to be intrigued by what happened, while additionally being exasperated by the harassment of women, the shocking treatment of servants and the differences between the classes.
Novellas, poetry and short stories: Atwood’s versatility is manifest
Despite being a retelling of an Ancient Greek myth, The Penelopiad also focuses on women. In this novella, Penelope assumes the role of narrator after her death and muses about the events presented on the Odyssey. She was the daughter of King Icarus of Sparta and a Naiad. She married Odysseus when she was 15 years old. He cheated on a race for her hand and managed to convince her that he reciprocated her feelings. Despite being remembered for her fidelity to Odysseus while he was fighting in the Trojan War, Penelope wouldn’t advise other women to follow her example. Death offered her a different perspective on how a woman should lead her life.
The narration is enthralling and occasionally sarcastic. While Penelope is the main narrator, the points of view of the Twelve Maids are also invaluable. They offer a different image of Penelope. This short book renders itself to various interpretations. One of them is that it explores how, in a patriarchal society, women are put in conflict with one another.
The collection of short stories Moral Disorder focuses on the life of Nell and her relationship with her family. The personalities of the characters become clearer with each story, and their tribulations are often tangible and authentic. The stories told in the first person are particularly enthralling and immersive. ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘The Headless Horseman’ are some of my favourite stories in the collection.
Although she is better known as a prose writer than a poet, Margaret Atwood’s poetry collections should not be dismissed. The Door was my first and (so far) only foray into her poetry. It delves into a variety of topics, including war, trauma, mourning, the role of poets, the healing qualities of nature, and the destruction of the natural world. While some of the poems shine thanks to their realistic elements, others are more gothic in tone. Not all poems are memorable for their musicality, but some have a gracious beating rhythm. As a whole the collection is commendable. The highlights of the collection are ‘War Photo’ and ‘Enough of These Discouragements’.
Margaret Atwood’s body of work is so extensive and exciting that reading it will be a lifetime pleasurable pursuit.