The stages of a woman’s life and loves are presented in 11 elegantly linked episodes, in the Booker-winning Canadian author’s latest collection.
Atwood (The Tent, Jan. 2006, etc.) mingles omniscient with first-person narrative, moving backward and forward in time through nearly seven decades, to portray her (initially unnamed) sentient protagonist, a freelance journalist and sometime teacher whose eventual commitment to writing seems born of the secrets and evasions into which a lifetime of relationships and responsibilities propels her. We first meet her (in “The Bad News”) as an elderly woman who lives with her longtime companion, Gilbert (nicknamed “Tig”), in a menacing imagined future shaped by environmental and political catastrophes and further imperiled by approaching “barbarians.” Next, scenes from her childhood disclose complex feelings toward her somewhat distant mother and the younger sister (Lizzie) she’s obliged to help raise, and—while garbed for Halloween as “The Headless Horseman”—resentment of Lizzie’s increasingly irrational fears and mood swings. The agonies of being a sensitive teen and a socially challenged “brain” are beautifully captured in “My Last Duchess.” Then, Nell (finally named, when Atwood shifts into omniscient narration) finds something less than happiness when the aforementioned Tig leaves his flamboyant, demanding wife Oona for her, and Nell’s energies are subsumed for years in caring for him, his two sons, the infuriating Oona and, once again, her unstable, possibly schizophrenic sibling. The final stories are concerned with her aging parents’ last days and the legacy of photographs, stories and memories that comprise her family’s inchoate history and point the way toward a fulfillment perhaps implicit in the jumble of false starts and unresolved commitments that her life has hitherto been.
Crisp prose, vivid detail and imagery and a rich awareness of the unity of human generations, people and animals, and Nell’s own exterior and inmost selves, make this one of Atwood’s most accessible and engaging works yet.