No doubt you have read something of Atwood’s in your lifetime – from 1970’s The Edible Woman to the 2009 novel The Year of the Flood – part of the incredible MaddAddam series. Or perhaps you’ve tried some of her poetry or short stories. Most likely you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale – whether through school or because of its integral place in literature.
Over the years, Atwood has won so many awards and been given so many honorary degrees I can’t even begin to list them – so go here if you want to know more. Instead, I am going to swiftly move on to some of my favourite Margaret Atwood books…
The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed.
This is the first time I truly discovered dystopian literature at its best. This is a dark, witty and terrifyingly astute tale of one woman’s imprisonment and desires – and her bravery and honesty. With a deft turn of words, Atwood envelops you in a story that grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I had never considered a dystopia – having not experienced 1984 and a few years before my attempt of anything similar (Hothouse was my next step shortly followed by The Road) – and this transfixed me… my next few writing forays explored the art fitfully and without much success. It is Atwood’s skill that creates a brilliant story in The Handmaid’s Tale – a truly impressive dystopia is not blood and guts and zombies, it’s the darkness within – something Atwood explores time and time again.
This sat on the family bookshelf for years before I ever picked it up. The Blind Assassin is another demonstration of Atwood’s incredibly versatile wit and powers of observation. This does come with a warning label though – it’s a bit weird (and when I warn you that this is weird, in Atwood terms, it’s very weird). A heady blend of thriller, humour, science-fiction and romance (the sordid kind), it also won the Booker Prize in 2000. I wouldn’t recommend it as a starting point, but it’s definitely a must-read if you want to get to know Margaret Atwood’s novels.
Welcome to the MaddAddam series. Jimmy – now Snowman – recounts his tale of the woman he loved and lost, and his intrinsic part of the ruined world he now lives in (as a slightly crazy person wrapped in bedsheets and up a tree). Oryx and Crake is another demonstration of Atwood’s indomitable skill at dystopian writing. When I first read Oryx and Crake, it was the wrong way around in the MaddAddam series (read my review of the book here), but it seemed to work. This is the creation of the world talked about in The Year of the Flood, and in the forthcoming MaddAddam (I cannot WAIT for this book to come out!) and it was typical Atwood style. The characters are those to invest in, and this is the first chance I had to see the broad, sweeping range of Atwood’s imagination (though performed brilliantly in The Blind Assassin, it’s dystopian fiction where I feel Atwood truly excels). Whichever way around you read the MaddAddam series, these are essential reading.
The second in the series, this was one of the biggest books that came out at the tail end of 2009, when I was still working at Waterstones. The hardback took pride of place on the bookshelves at the front of the store, dominating the celebrity cookbooks and autobiographies and Twilight stacks with pure class. I remember opening that first page with a catch of apprehension and excitement – this was the first Atwood I had read in years, and I was terrified to discover whether or not I still liked her or if it was as I remembered. Oh, and it was better. As I’ve mentioned before – it is not terror of monsters that makes a good dystopia, it is the pure darkness in human beings, contrasted equally with the stark beauty of them as well. A matrix of religion, nature, seediness and brutality, there is also honesty, bravery and love. It rekindled my love of Margaret Atwood books, and it has been something I have revisited several times since.
Margaret Atwood’s novels are a demonstration of the art of writing – so carefully and intelligently constructed they wrap you in warm words and magical worlds that haunt you and welcome you like an old friend. They are stories to return to time and time again. This is an author who should be on every bookshelf.