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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The traces we leave behind
What is the nature of a fossil? Using a quote from Bjorn Kurten to precede this novel, Atwood illuminates much of what is to follow: a fossil is not necessarily a part of an organism, but could be a record of its activity: a footprint, perhaps. It could be a prehistoric equivalent of graffiti.
Using the fossil as the central metaphor for her novel, Atwood tells the...
Published on 25 Oct. 2000 by m.nell@rf.roccadefinance.nl

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3.0 out of 5 stars Middling - not great
Slightly weird, and left me wondering why I'd bothered. Margaret Atwood is a really good writer, so nothing she does is terrible. She writes well and holds you, usually through both plot and characterisation. But this is a curiously unsatisfying book. I was left feeling as if I had just devoured a rather large candy-floss. Quite engrossing while it lasted, but no...
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50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The traces we leave behind, 25 Oct. 2000
By 
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
What is the nature of a fossil? Using a quote from Bjorn Kurten to precede this novel, Atwood illuminates much of what is to follow: a fossil is not necessarily a part of an organism, but could be a record of its activity: a footprint, perhaps. It could be a prehistoric equivalent of graffiti.
Using the fossil as the central metaphor for her novel, Atwood tells the story of three individuals whose lives collide with cataclysmic effect. Told in episodes from the three different perspectives the reader uncovers the story much like an archaeologist might uncover the treasures of a prehistoric site. Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje are put under the microscope and steadily stripped down to their essential components by a narrator (although a few of Elizabeth's episodes are told in the first person) who is as objective as a scientist. We all know, however, that scientists are not always objective.
What makes this novel so fascinating is this interplay between cold fact and emotional involvement. Atwood refuses to follow easy paths to happy solutions and the reader senses early on that a tragic outcome is as inevitable as the eventual extinction of Lesje's beloved dinosaurs. Her characters are neither heroes nor villains, neither heartless monsters nor innocent victims. They are driven towards their fates by forces as much in their own natures as in the natures of those around them.
As any true Atwood devotee would expect, the writing is sharp, witty, observant and totally compelling. It is perhaps richer in symbolism than many of her other novels, yet it does not tread the mystical and poetic waters (so to speak) of "Surfacing". It reads deceptively easily and the bubbling volcano at its core is implied rather than stated. If the novel has a possible downfall it could lie in this subtlety, which many readers might not perceive.
"Life before man" is a landmark novel, even for an author who is surely one of the greatest literary minds of our age. Its effect is devastating in the best possible sense, making the reader reflect on the consequences of actions which might seem insignificant at the time, but can leave traces far beyond their original scope.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Skillful character writing, 9 Aug. 2005
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
In 'Life Before Man', Margaret Atwood presents us with several lead characters, displays their troubled souls and lets their worlds overlap. No-one would envy any one of these characters but perhaps we can identify with some of their traits. In Elizabeth we witness the self-destruction that comes from excessive self-control - I wanted to slap her, shake her, anything to make her speak out. I watched with sadness Lesje's innocent quest to find love that will not suffocate her, although she risks becoming the one who smothers. Nate is almost docile. He tries to find happiness but is pulled apart between Elizabeth's oppressive coldness and Lesje's neediness.

This is not a cheerful book, but nor is it overly morose. I found that I could see what was going to happen, how each character would feel about it and how they would try to deal with it. But being able to foretell the consequences does not mean that the book is dull or predictable, rather that the characters seem so real that I could second guess them. Margaret Atwood has written these people so well that they feel as familiar as friends or colleagues - a skill demonstrated by only the best of writers. You will look upon them as you would a friend who is ignoring your wise advice and heading for a downfall! If you are a fan of Atwood's work then this is represents a worthy addition to your bookshelf.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Their own worst enemies, 25 April 2013
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood is a thoroughly disturbing read. It is beautifully written and imaginatively constructed. The prose is a delight, as are insights into character and comments on contemporary life which, in Life Before Man, happens around mid-1970s Toronto. What is disturbing about this tale of the eternal triangle, the love triangle, of course, is that these people seem to be imprisoned by the inevitable. Theirs, by the way, is less of a triangle than a dodecagon. They all seem to be quite prolific in their pursuit of the attainable. They are also reminiscent of people trying to break out from their own limitations, but who remain doomed to repeat their accustomed mistakes. Intervention might possibly break the cycle, but this would appear to be an imagination beyond where anyone lives. And any interruption to the apparently inevitable would surely just recreate circumstances that would ensure reversion to type.

Lesje (pronounced Lashia) is in one relationship with William and another with fossils. Sometimes she becomes confused as to which is which. She and William are not married. This may or may not have significance, depending on the moral stance you take on contemporary ideas of the permissive. In fact Lesje is espoused to her work in the palaeontology section of the museum where she is employed, along with, if not exactly alongside, other members of the plot. Lesje is a slight figure, small breasted and thin, but she seems to punch above her weight intellectually and also physically, when she finds what she wants.

Elizabeth is married to Nate. They have two children and what was called at the time an "open" relationship, that in reality is about as open as a deceitful closed door. Being open for them, appears to require them not to lie openly about how much they are deceiving one another.

Superficially Elizabeth appears very confident. She seems to want to call the shots, but often finds that she has not only run out of ammunition, but also that she has become the target. When we reassemble her affairs - mostly finished - and her unhappy childhood shared with a demanding sister and a foster mother called Auntie Muriel, we can start to reconstruct the miasma inside her head, the mess that apparently tries to recreate itself in most aspects of her life.

Nate, Elizabeth's nattily named husband, is sometimes a gangling fool, often clumsy and inept. At other times he knows precisely what to do with his tools and gets the job done, usually to the delight of all concerned. He certainly seems to string the ladies along. Lesje becomes the latest. The timing seems doubly crass and insensitive, especially because Elizabeth's recently rejected, Chris, has just responded to change by blowing his brains out with a shotgun. A tale of everyday folk, this...

It seems that these lives become simultaneously a form of torture and masochism. For these participants, it also seems to work, depending on which side of the transaction anyone wants to be. The purpose of existence seems to be the seeking of pleasure in order to inflict pain, both on oneself and on others. Elizabeth and Nate's children will grow up to reproduce the pattern, because it will be all they have known. And eventually, of course, they are destined to be passed around like so much chattel.

Lesje likes to have everything catalogued, neatly labelled and filed away in its box for future reference. It's a tendency that is as unlike the lives of these people that it even becomes rather comic.

Life Before Man is a truly imaginative title. It may refer to Lesje's dinosaur fossils. It may refer to the women, who indeed may have envisaged a life before encountering their men. It may also be simply human life, all of it, laid before us, all of us.

Whatever the slant, Life Before Man intrigues, excites and illuminates all at the same time. Margaret Atwood's perceptions and ability to sum up the human condition at the flick of a phrase are uncanny. There is also a hint of derision, a suggestion that these people may not only be their own worst enemies, but everyone else's as well. Perhaps Life Before Man was thus a relatively privileged state. We wouldn't know, of course, because we are what we have become. All else is fossil.
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4.0 out of 5 stars We're All Human, 21 Nov. 2011
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Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
A very subtle and thoughtful look at the collapse of a marriage and the process of divorce. Atwood's story is told by the three people involved: Elizabeth, the wife who cheats on and despises her husband but won't tolerate the thought of losing his protection (of her and their two girls); Nate, the husband, a gentle man trying to hang onto his family life but also find someone to love him; and Lesje, the young woman he falls in love with, daughter of Eastern European and German immigrants, who seeks relief from the confusion of her family's past by sinking herself into science and in particular into the study of the dinosaurs. Atwood slowly makes you understand more and more about all three characters, and sympathize with all of them in their different ways, as their lives become more and more fraught. We learn that the chilly Elizabeth has become as she is partly because of a disturbed childhood and adolescence which has included a dead mother, an absent father, a mad then dead sister and a cruel, old-fashioned aunt who brought her up. We sympathize with Nate's desire to do the right thing and to try to keep everyone happy even as we want to shake him for trying to placate Elizabeth (and also, later, Lesje) so much. And Atwood paints a vivid picture of how Lesje, who begins as a rather naive woman (happy to settle for a rather dull partner and a life of routine, retreating regularly into a fantasy of living in the land of the dinosaurs) is forced to grow up and encounter human emotion. There are some beautiful passages: descriptions of Lesje's immigrant family; of the exhibition Elizabeth is organizing at the museum where she works and of the furnishings in her house; of Nate's feeling of freedom when running. It's not always an easy read, not all the characters quite work (William, for example, never entirely comes to life), and some themes are a bit underdeveloped (it might have been interesting to have Elizabeth to meditate a bit more on why she actually married her husband in the first place - we only see the happier bits of their marriage from Nate's point of view). And there is the usual problem with Atwood in that Nate is slightly less compelling than either woman (however, he is likeable, which is more than one can say for a lot of Atwood men, and she shows his dilemma well).

Perhaps where this novel succeeds most is in showing that in relationship crises there are no simple heroes or villains - we each have potential both for extreme kindness and to behave extremely badly, and the reasons that people act as they do are often more complex than we think. A thought-provoking book that will remain with you long after you read it. Definitely recommended - but make sure you have something cheerful to read after!
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3.0 out of 5 stars Middling - not great, 18 Jan. 2015
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Slightly weird, and left me wondering why I'd bothered. Margaret Atwood is a really good writer, so nothing she does is terrible. She writes well and holds you, usually through both plot and characterisation. But this is a curiously unsatisfying book. I was left feeling as if I had just devoured a rather large candy-floss. Quite engrossing while it lasted, but no aftertaste and no feeling of being well-filled-up. Especially the ending, which felt as if she wasn't sure how to end it herself and just, well, stopped. (Er, so that's it, then? Most odd.) I also ended up feeing rather irritated with the main characters, who all seemed to be flawed, weak and annoyingly vague and pathetic about what they're trying (or not trying) to do with their lives. Are we supposed to like, care for or sympathise with any of them? Hard to do!
Not one of her best. Try her other books. Her later ones are much better.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why was the end so disappointing?, 9 Oct. 2010
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
I embarked on this, my 5th or 6th Atwood, with joy and anticipation. And I loved the book right until the last three paragraphs. I would have liked for Atwood to have explained a bit more about Nate and Elizabeth's 'open marriage', about Chris and other relationships they had while married to each other. I despised Nate. Weak, self-absorbed, egotistic. Elizabeth, arrogant, so unsure of herself, jealous, possessive, manipulative. Lesje, obviously damaged. I wish Atwood had depicted Nate's reaction to the pregnancy (and Elizabeth's) and given an indication of life in the future for all of them. And I really could have done without reading all about Chinese Peasant Art in the last paragraph. Very tedious. A book as well written as this one deserves 5 stars, however, for me, with all the holes and disappointments stated above, I can only offer a 3.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best Atwood books, 30 July 2011
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
I am a big fan of the "alternative future" type Atwood stories - Oryx and Crake is one of my favourites. This book is in that genre and ties back into Oryx and Crake sometimes although its not necessary to read that to read life before man. Typical for the Atwood books, you start reading it and immediately get lost in a parallel of our world - at first you do not really understand what's going on but you are still hooked and with your sense of curiosity peeked you read on. I will not spoil the plot for readers but the story is amazing, breathtaking. Its built on modern issues and as such you can well imagine this alternative future world one day becoming reality
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Seems unfinished, 20 Feb. 2011
This review is from: Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) (Paperback)
So dull it hurts. Banality and boredom abound, as do more than a few thematic overlaps between this and Atwood's later, much superior novel, Bodily Harm. As it stands, the characters are infuriatingly self-involved and impossible to care for. I read it to the end but even the denouement fails to satisfy; it actually seems unfinished, as if its author became as exasperated as this reader did. 'Life Before Man' also needs a spark of some kind - it has suicide, forcible sex, adultery and even dinosaurs yet still it remains unfathomably dull. Avoid if you would like to continue to consider Atwood a genuis.
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Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics)
Life Before Man (Contemporary Classics) by Margaret Atwood (Paperback - 19 Sept. 1996)
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