Notes on a Voice: the literary critic Peter Kemp analyses the Canadian novelist's "prodigious output"
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
"Books and solitude" often feature in writers’ childhoods, Margaret Atwood has noted. They certainly did in her own, which began in Ottawa in 1939. For half the year, her father, an entomologist studying leaf-eating insects, took the family to his research station in the backwoods of Quebec. In this isolated cabin, Atwood, who didn’t go to school full-time until she was 11, became "an omnivorous reader".
Her literary output, now extending over 50 years, has been similarly prodigious: poetry, short stories, non-fiction on subjects ranging from Canadian literature to economics, tales for children, and—most outstanding—novels whose settings include early-19th-century Canada, Toronto in different periods of the 20th century, and North America in the near future, as envisaged in her totalitarian dystopia "The Handmaid’s Tale", and the eco-horror trilogy that began in 2003 with "Oryx and Crake" and ends this year with "MaddAddam".
To persist in becoming a writer. In 1960 just five new novels by Canadian writers were published in Canada; in bookshops they were found on shelves marked "Canadiana", alongside works such as "101 Things to Do with Maple Sugar". Atwood’s first signing—for "The Edible Woman" (1969)—took place in the Men’s Socks and Underwear department of a store in Edmonton. In those days, the term "Canadian writer" was jokily regarded as an oxymoron. Atwood heads a group—Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Carol Shields—who turned it into an accolade.
Bringing things excitingly together. Her imagination responds as keenly to scientific concerns as it does to the literary heritage she is steeped in. Packed with vivid detail, her fiction has panoramic reach. She explores inner worlds and changing social scenes. She mixes intellectual sizzle, sensuous immediacy and sardonic wit (on a fast-food ad: "smiling chickens offering platters of their own fried body parts") with rich description (lipstick in shades of "melting orange sherbet…faded pink satin", plants with "rubbery ear-shaped leaves and fruit like warts, like glands") and verbal acuity ("Eminent, the mausoleum word").
Revise a lot. Cut a lot. Weed out the unnecessary and the obvious. The waste-paper basket, she believes, is "the tenth Muse".
Colourfully assorted. George Orwell alerted her to the way euphemisms can cloak oppression (as "The Handmaid’s Tale" sinisterly displays). Gothic fiction kindled her flair for casting an eerie sheen over the everyday. The furniture in a Victorian parlour is done out in "the colours of the inside of the body—the maroon of kidneys, the reddish purple of hearts, the opaque blue of veins, the ivory of teeth and bones".
(1) Giving a new spin to one of the less reputable literary genres: the bodice-ripper in "Lady Oracle", the beach-read thriller in "Bodily Harm", the penny-dreadful murder ballad in "Alias Grace", 1930s dime magazine sci-fi in "The Blind Assassin", the Gothic vampire tale in "The Robber Bride". (2) Counterpointing female characters. Three very different women are brought together when their lives and loves are ravaged by Zenia, the robber bride.
"The sun moves into Scorpio, Tony has lunch at the Toxique with her two friends Roz and Charis, a slight breeze blows in over Lake Ontario, and Zenia returns from the dead" ("The Robber Bride", page two).
Peter Kemp is chief fiction reviewer of the Sunday Times
MaddAddam Bloomsbury, August 29th
Illustration Kathryn Rathke