This year, Margaret Atwood’s debut novel, The Edible Woman, turns fifty. (It’s actually a little older than that, owing to getting lost at the publishing house for a couple years before finally hitting shelves in 1969.) Fifteen novels followed, spanning literary thrillers, apocalyptic dystopias and historical fiction. The author has also written short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and has self-published books online, as well as collaborated on graphic novels. In short, Margaret Atwood has spent the last fifty years exploring every single path open to a writer, and yet few readers know her beyond The Handmaid’s Tale.
What fascinates me most about Atwood’s writing is her ability to make every genre feel new and exciting. She even gets me on board with genres I don’t read very often (sorry crime novels–it’s not you, it’s me). When I’m in a reading slump, her books pull me out.
To celebrate The Edible Woman’s birthday–and to prepare for the publication of The Testaments, a long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale coming this September—I re-read every one of Atwood’s novels. Here are my takeaways.
The Edible Woman is an astonishing debut. Faced with a future she’s not sure she wants, Marian stops eating. She wont eat meat after empathizing with a steak at a restaurant, and she won’t eat vegetables because she imagines them feeling traumatized by their harvesting. The novel feels similar to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, but it’s funnier, lighter. It was clear from the beginning that Atwood was a talent to reckon with.
I’ve re-read Surfacing many times but enjoyed visiting it again. It’s a detective novel/thriller about a woman figuring out her own history, so that she can learn who she is now. She visits her childhood home, an isolated cabin, with her lover and their two married friends. Soon, their relationships and everything they thought to be true, starts to fracture. Reading this right after The Edible Woman is a joy; the writing around the expectations of women is much tighter and more layered.
If you’ve ever felt like running away from your entire life, Lady Oracle is for you. Joan Foster has been running away from different identities for as long as she can remember, and now she’s tired of keeping track of them. After her poetry collection brings unexpected fame and fortune, she worries that her identity shifts will be revealed and so sets up a plan to fake her own death and hide away in a little Italian village. The novel is dark and funny with gestures toward Atwood’s specific brand of feminism: It skewers social expectations against women, while still pushing her characters in realistic directions.
Sometimes characters stay with you. Life Before Man’s Lesje (pronounced ‘Lashia’) is one of them. She’s a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, and one third of a love triangle that includes her lover Nate and his wife Elizabeth. Like Atwood’s previous characters, Lesje is searching for herself–this time among the fossils at a museum. Her troubled relationship with Nate reflects her troubled views of herself. The book is split into chapters from each character’s point of view, with Lesje’s being the most compelling.
Atwood is excellent at writing truly unlikable people. Bodily Harm sees journalist Rennie travel to a tiny Caribbean island for a work assignment. The trip is supposed to be easy, a light travel piece for a magazine. But she gets caught up in gun-running and then a political coup without ever really noticing. She’s mostly lets things happen to her, and it’s frustrating. This is the bleakest of Atwood’s novels so far, but it’s also the most linear. Like Life Before Man, this novel explores the same kinds of power struggles and how sex can be a violence. But here those things feel somewhat heavy-handed. At the same time, all of these themes seem to be leading to her next book: The Handmaid’s Tale.
Every time I read The Handmaid’s Tale it offers something new and freshly bleak. But now, it’s layered with the legacies of Trump and Hulu and the acting delights of Elisabeth Moss. In 2016, reported sales of The Handmaid’s Tale rose by 200%. The novel has been referred to in political speeches, on placards, and in almost every other feminist dystopian novel written in recent years. The Republic of Gilead was always rooted in truth–everything Atwood included in the novel had happened somewhere at some time in the real world–but in 2016, the horrors Gilead started to feel like they might come to America. This is the Margaret Atwood novel I have read the most times (I wrote my thesis on it), but this most recent reread felt different. Instead of feeling like feminist dystopian fiction, it read more like a blueprint. It’s a truly terrifying read.
From here, Atwood’s novels start to get physically hefty, like she’s literally giving them more space to be intellectually and emotionally expansive. Her characters’ backstories become fuller, making them more well rounded. Cat’s Eye mostly follows Elaine, a painter, as she returns to Toronto for a retrospective exhibition of her work. As with previous characters, Elaine does not fit with what is expected of her. Her family moved around a lot when she was a child, leaving her less than skilled at making friends. As a child, she’s bullied by her three closest “friends.” Upon returning home, she finds that old wounds still haven’t healed. This is a book about how female identity is constructed, as well as the perplexing effects of memory.
The Robber Bride is also a beast of a book. My edition is 550 pages, and weighs approximately the same as a small child. I love Atwood’s quote that Zenia is the character she most identifies with, because she “is the professional liar, and what else do fiction writers do but create lies that other people will believe?” I did cheat a bit here, and read “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” too, a short story in Atwood’s collection Stone Mattress. Zenia is an utterly self-interested, husband-stealing, death-faking terror–truly great.
At this point in the project, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything but Atwood novels. I actually had dreams about Alias Grace. I don’t normally love crime novels, but I’ve read this twice now, and watched the Netflix series, because the story is rooted in truth. It’s based on a notorious 1843 Canadian murder trial concerning two servants who are convicted for killing their master and head housekeeper. Grace Marks was sentenced to life in prison, while James McDermott was hanged. Spoiler alert: Grace definitely did it, and with good reason. Maybe. Have I gotten to the point where I’m justifying murderous maids now? Maybe.
Another beast: The Blind Assassin clocks in at 520 pages. But it’s like a book-within-a-book, and the book-within-a-book has its own book-within-a-book, too. Confused yet? The Blind Assassin is a work of historical fiction, told by Iris Chase as she looks back at her life. Like Cat’s Eye, it’s mostly about memory, and re-memory. The inner story is by Iris’s sister, Laura, and is about a pulp fiction writer. The story within that one is called “Blind Assassin;” it’s a sci-fi story told by the pulp fiction writer. It’s all very twisty, but I must say that I’m really enjoying this doorstop-sized section of Atwood’s novels. There’s so much to get my teeth into, and Atwood’s super-descriptive writing blooms in all the extra space. I can picture Iris’s house exactly. Oh, and side note: The Blind Assassin won the Booker prize in 2000. (Atwood has had five other nominations: The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Oryx & Crake, and now The Testaments.)
I know that we’re all terrified of living in The Handmaid’s Tale, but honestly, life in Oryx & Crake might be even worse. This is the first in the Maddaddam Trilogy and a perfect example of speculative fiction. It focuses on Snowman after an apocalypse has wiped out most of the human race. As we look back and learn about his involvement in genetic experimentation–with fellow experimenters Oryx and Crake–and the creation of the “Crakers,” a new human species of peaceful vegetarians, we also see his responsibility. If reading Handmaid felt scarily prescient, Oryx & Crake is a prophecy to truly fear.
The Penelopiad is nice break into myth. Oh, it’s just as bleak as everything else? Ok then. Part of Canongate’s re-envisioned myth series, this is Atwood’s take on The Odyssey, but from Penelope’s point of view. It’s broken up by choruses from Penelope’s twelve most loyal and (sorry, spoiler) hanged maids. It’s a stunning exploration of The Odyssey, offering an alternate version of some events, filling gaps, and–most importantly–giving a voice to Penelope, a central but mostly silent character in Homer’s original tale.
Back to the trilogy. The Year of the Flood runs mostly concurrent with Oryx & Crake, so everything is happening at the same time, though while Oryx & Crake was set within the wealthy confines of the Corporation compounds, The Year of the Flood follows lower-class characters out in the “pleeblands.” It introduces the God’s Gardeners, a scientific/religious sect who are trying to take care of the planet and fend off “the waterless flood,” an apocalyptic event they predict is coming. Toby is one of two protagonists, along with Ren, both God’s Gardeners. She joined the group after being saved from her psychopathic employer by Adam One, the sect’s leader. She meets Ren who is already a member of the group. Their stories cross over at various points with Snowman, Oryx, and Crake.
And the final in the trilogy: Maddaddam. This novel continues the timelines from both Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, and sees characters from both novels attempting to rebuild after the pandemic. Toby becomes a teacher to the Crakers, providing them with a creation myth of their own, while trying to find her own place in the stories she’s telling. It’s an epic conclusion to a decade’s worth of books. (And really, there are some must-read lessons to be learned here, scientists.)
The Heart Goes Last received mixed reviews when first published, but I really enjoyed it. And I’ve enjoyed it again. It’s a comic satire based on a social experiment, in which people live in 1950s-esque utopian housing complexes, wanting for nothing, but switching every other month for life in a prison cell. The main couple, Charmaine and Stan, find themselves in a spiraling obsession with the couple who live in their house on alternate months, and unsurprisingly, it turns out that their utopia isn’t as it seems. The novel is genuinely funny, as well as being a meditation on whether our love of technology is really making us as free as we think it is.
I didn’t love Hag-Seed as much as I wanted to. It’s part of the Shakespeare rewritten series published by Hogarth, and is The Tempest reimagined, but I’m perhaps too influenced by my own Shakespeare-revisited ambivalence to give this a fair look. Putting my cynicism aside, Atwood has recast Prospero as Felix, ex-Artistic Director of a successful theater, self-exiled and with a decade-long plan for vengeance over his ex-colleagues. Given the opportunity to teach theater as part of a prison rehabilitation scheme, Felix spies an opportunity to put on The Tempest and have his revenge. It’s the book’s ending that I have the most trouble with, and I can’t help but feel that these characters end up a little bit cheated.
I’ve done it! At this point, I honestly feel like a bot that’s been fed every Greek myth ever written and programmed to write terrible/hilarious mash-ups of Greek myths. But here’s what I’ve learned: Few people stay dead in an Atwood novel for very long. Lots of people fake their deaths, or become different people, or come back from the dead. I’ve also learned that being wholly likable makes for a boring character, that self-exploration of identity is likely to lead to confrontational conclusions, and that Margaret Atwood is capable of writing in absolutely any genre. I’m excited for The Testaments, even though I’m wary of how brutal it may be. I’m also astonished by The Edible Woman. Even at fifty, that novel–like all of Atwood’s novels–remains completely relevant.