Getting into Atwood

I recently began reading the work of Margaret Atwood, and I’m very glad I did! Her wit, clarity, and complexity are all very stimulating, and sometimes makes one ashamed of the bloated prose that’s so common in fantasy fiction (I’m a recurring sinner here myself).

My first Atwood was Moral Disorder, and it made me feel I’ve wasted time by not reading her before. The stories in this book can be read independently, but also add up to a complex whole. Mostly they follow the life of a protagonist from childhood to adulthood, while also tracing the lives of her sister, parents, and others. Often the stories hinge on very particular elements, such as a Halloween costume made and worn just as our protagonist is outgrowing Halloween itself, or the life of a horse that she ends up taking care of during a spell as a farm holder along with her partner. Also interesting are the stories that aren’t told, but which seem to happen between what is told – effectually suggesting the fullness of life and how hard it is to capture it. All of this is written in an admirably simple, effective, and beautiful prose. I now promise to mend my ways and start going through Atwood’s impressive catalogue.

My second encounter with Atwood’s work was Hag-Seed, and that too was a wonderful read. This is a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare, meaning that invited authors do their own takes of assigned plays. Atwood faces off with The Tempest. I really like her idea of doing this by telling the story of how a fallen theatre director and his production of the play with convicts in a prison. It allows for both an effective frame that mirrors the themes and plot of the play itself, and to have an ongoing discussion between the characters about all the small and large problems of the play and how to stage it. Throughout, there are elegant but non-obvious references to the play’s production history and the many debates surrounding its reception, all of which are admirably up-to-date. And the theatre production frame opens for all the little questions of the practical aspects of performing Shakespeare, something I think is all too missing in many discussions of his plays – after all, they really are PLAYS!

It is also refreshing to see how Atwood does not engage too much with the many postcolonial readings of Caliban that now are so influential. That is not to say that I have anything against them – on the contrary, they are essential to how I read the play myself – but it is still intriguing with a take which gives room to many of the play’s other aspects.

As with many other similar books (and films!) that follow classical originals, some parts of the plot here appear a bit too contrived, and the resolution itself is a bit rushed. Also, it is very hard, even for a writer like Atwood, to keep readers from playing ‘spot the original plot’ while reading. That being said, most of the characters of this book do take on lives of their own, lives that brush with The Tempest and then continue along their own trajectories.

So great books both.

Parts of this blogpost originally appeared as reviews on my Goodreads blog.

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