Your handmade guide to the world of Margaret Atwood
The author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has enchanted a new generation of bibliophiles and feminists
Literary polymath Margaret Atwood belongs to that rare breed of writers whose finesse and profundity are not compromised by the prolific nature of their output – nor, indeed, by the seemingly boundless purview of their interests. The Canadian author and poet has produced over 40 works of fiction, poetry and theory, most of which have engendered critical acclaim throughout her long career – and most of which have managed to maintain an abiding relevance throughout the years and among the disciples of a cluster of disparate genres.Atwood’s subject matter oscillates between the historical, the satirical, the parabolic and the bleakly dystopian; but recently, she has enraptured a new generation of fans who came to know her via the serialised adaptations of two of her novels in particular. The renewed popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Alias Grace (1996) is certainly attributable to the success of the dramatic interpretations by Hulu and Netflix respectively; but these are also startlingly prescient works, works that obviously resonate with people in light of the recent proliferation of conservative nationalism. Since both novels – and their derivatives – address some of the implications of gendered subjugation and nationhood, it’s hardly surprising that Atwood’s pertinence is waxing afresh.Atwood’s “science fiction” is uniquely genius because it is – quite deliberately – never wholly fictitious: she is remarkably adept at blurring the lines between the imaginary and the “unimaginable”, which is a phrase we routinely attach to the casualties of human behaviour. She is always intent on denuding those exigencies of survival that we psychically or morally disown, but which are nevertheless grounded in fact – in our histories, as it were. Eugenics and monotheocracies and classism and colonialism might take on a comforting veneer of heightened artificiality, masquerading as figments of Atwood’s imagination, but what begins as an exercise in imaginative speculation always ends unexpectedly in a spasm of self-reflection which endures long after the epilogue is over (or long after the credits have rolled).
With rumours of a new Atwood spinoff afoot, the time is ripe to immerse yourself in some of her best-loved works of fiction, if you haven’t already. To ease the burden of choice that Atwood’s enormous oeuvre occasions, we’ve created an Atwood-specific shortlist: this selection of her works is by no means exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start.
The Edible Woman (1969)A strange and wonderful proto-feminist allegory, The Edible Woman was Atwood’s first published novel and features a generic but ultimately formidable heroine who begins to identify with her food, and must weather an (edifying) period of starvation. It is of course slightly dated, given that it’s a product of the incipient feminism of the 1960s and encumbered with all the flaws that paradigm promotes; but it is also a preview of Atwood’s ongoing preoccupation with gender roles, and an excellent expression of the timeless conflict between compliance and selfhood.
The Maddaddam Trilogy (2003-2013)This trinity might be the next Atwood adaptation, as there are rumours that a project by Paramount Television and Anonymous Content is in the works. A saga 10 years in the making, the series comprises Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood and the eponymous Maddaddam (2013), and narrates various accounts of the aftermath of a devastating biological disaster. The trilogy is a compelling commentary on state-sanctioned greed, class infrastructure and the double-edged potency of human ingenuity.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)The novel responsible for Atwood’s resurgent popularity, The Handmaid’s Tale has been the favourite of Instagram “book clubs” for over a year now, and is fast accruing the status of a feminist classic. Set in a futuristic monotheocracy, The Handmaid’s Tale converges around the lives of the deeply repressed handmaids responsible for repopulating the barren earth.Alias Grace (1996)A deviation from her “speculative” miscelleny, Alias Grace is Atwood’s marvellous rendering of the life of the infamous 19th century murderess Grace Marks. It is deeply compelling and saturated with Atwood’s characteristic ambiguity; but it is especially worth reading because it offers a fascinating portrait of Canada in its early days as a colony.The Blind Assassin (2000)
An astonishing compression of 20th-century history, The Blind Assassin is rife with authorial sleight-of-hands, and an uncanny balance of the quotidian and the bizarre. It is guaranteed to mystify you, but it’s also a tender depiction of the innate complexity of human relationships.