BODILY HARM by Margaret Atwood


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Rennie is a free-lance Toronto journalist in her thirties. She's recently had a partial mastectomy; she has lost her live-in lover; she has entertained a brief but one-way crush on her doctor. Moreover, her apartment has been broken into. Not unexpectedly, then, all of this proves to be entirely too much for Rennie--so she wheedles a travel-piece assignment from a friendly magazine editor and flies down to the Caribbean island-state of St. Antoine for a spell of rest. It turns out, of course, to be nothing of the sort. The hotel is crummy, Rennie's lonely, the food is awful. And what human contacts she does make are at best ambiguous. A drug-dealer named Paul provides Rennie's first sex since her operation: "she enters her body again and there's a moment of pain, incarnation, this may only be the body's desperation, a flareup, a last clutch at the world before the long slide into final illness and death; but meanwhile she's solid after all, she's still here on the earth, she's grateful, he's touching her, she can still be touched." And a hang-about woman named Lora involves the unwitting Rennie in a gun-smuggling errand. (Lora's lover, Prince, is vying for control of the island's government.) Finally, then: there's a brief futile attempt at a revolution (worthy of operetta); it's crushed; and Lora and Rennie are jailed--and mistreated. True, Atwood's scenario here, banal as it is, supports an incline of conclusions: that sex is at base an aggression of power, if not full-out violence; that no matter how civilized, we are never beyond "bodily harm"--sexual, medical, or political; that knowing we are all equally vulnerable is a sort of rescue, even luck. But Atwood has, in Life Before Man especially, previously embodied the same dark philosophy in a more artful, far less didactic way. And the Final scenes of degradation are so appallingly immediate that they echo back on what then seems like an overly-long and mostly empty narrative corridor leading up to them. Still: strong work, reflecting a powerfully bleak vision--though too obvious and linear for fully satisfying fiction.
Pub Date: March 20th, 1982
ISBN: 0385491077
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1982


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