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On the surface a careless collection, but underneath ....
on 16 January 2008
What an unusual book! On the surface it is a series of short stories, almost thrown carelessly together and telling the life of a Canadian woman from childhood through to old age.
Along the way, various themes are introduced, some glancingly and others returned to from varying viewpoints in a number of different stories. Children and their parents are visited at the beginnings of life for one and nearing the end for the other. There is a wonderful account of a teenage girl becoming immersed in the study of literature with `a lot of ground still to cover' before the crucial end-of-school-years examination. Atwood skewers the 1970s - from the penniless central character, Nell, painting a second hand dining table orange through to `adultery' being `not a cool word' where `to pronounce it was a social gaffe'. A sister's mental health problems appear at times severe and deteriorating irreparably whilst at others they impress more as a misperception or a temporary fluctuation.
Perhaps the most persistent theme is the centrality of stories, either in the form of established literature or as fondly repeated favourite anecdotes from real life. But what is really distinctive about this book is its structure - eleven short stories, not all arranged chronologically, some written in the first and some the third person. The position in time of the `author' of some of these is also unusual; a story can end with a paragraph or two saying in effect that the events just described had taken place years ago and that things are now very different.
One interpretation of this strange structure is that the stories, some of which were published separately over a number of years, have merely been shoe-horned to hang untidily together in book form. But surely Atwood is too skilled and careful a writer to succumb to such laziness - it would take very little effort, after all, to tweak and rearrange these into a conventional cradle to grave account.
I prefer instead to see this as a subtle statement about the ways in which we really give an account to ourselves of our lives in an episodic and thematic fashion. So, instead of `chapter one my childhood', `chapter two my teens' and so on, we might think of long-lived themes such as our changing relationships with our parents and perhaps more intense and time-constrained events such as the death of somebody close or sexual awakening during puberty.
And in the book Atwood's themes can be seen to have a beginning, a middle and, in true short story fashion, a gentle thud or a wistful speculation with which to finish. There is a sense that she is experimenting not only with the deep structure of book composition but also with the way in which we `author' our own lives.
In many ways this is not one of Margaret Atwood's `big books' but I found it an extremely enjoyable and accessible read - and one that won't yet let me put it down and move on to something new.