Margaret Atwood has yet to write a dull book. This one sees her making incursions into the territory which it now seems incumbent upon all women writers to visit at least once in their lives: the re-writing of fairy tales, myths etc. Here for instance we find Hamlet's Gertrude answering back ("I am not wringing my hands. I'm drying my nails.) along with the ugly sister, evil stepmother etc. Such tricks are somewhat old hat by now but Atwood never fails to be interesting and entertaining. She is also very funny, which makes her more sombre moments all the more discomfitting.
She is both clever and intelligent, imaginative and inventive - who else would have thought that when war is found to be too dangerous and expensive the needs it meets could be fulfilled by what amounts to a male version of the Miss World contest? The temptation is to call her whimsical but that is altogether too fluffy and insubstantial a word; Atwood has a granite presence.
Her observation is acute, especially when turned to a favoured topic of hers, the relationship between the sexes. Yet hers is not so much a box of tricks as a box of knives; she is painfully sharp. She is like the friend who drinks your coffee and proceeds to itemise with barely disguised relish all your faults and foibles, only to shrug her shoulders and say, "Deal with it!" There is a sense that she is never wholly involved in what she is writing about, as if she deliberately stands apart from it. Not that she lacks honesty or conviction, but maybe compassion. But then, she is already ahead of us there, describing the Wise Virgins as "too knowing about us and our stupidities. We suspect them of having mean hearts. They are far too clever, not for their own good but for ours." Indeed!
If you are already a fan, you'll love this book; it is classic Atwood at her most spare. For those new to her it may be a short sharp shock, perhaps. You certainly won't be bored though.