I love Margaret Atwood. I would say that I was her biggest fan, but I suspect that line of thinking would descend into a childish competition with other rivals to the claim.
In honour of Atwood’s new book, ‘The Heart Goes Last’, I’ve decided to take stock and share my top 5 Atwood novels. This is a list of personal favourites and the criteria has been simple: which books do I re-read most often. You’ll see that this has meant a certain wonderful novel has been left off the list because, while I will never dispute it’s genius, I rarely re-read it and it’s certainly not an old friend in way my chosen five truly are. Also, because I never want to live in a world in which there are no new Atwood novels for me to read,* I’ve started to ration myself when it comes to her recent publications. I deliberately was late in reading ‘After the Flood’ and still haven’t opened ‘Maddaddam’. Still, I’m happy with my list for how it stands at this point in 2015 and am looking forward to what the future will bring. As it happens, I don’t think ‘The Heart Goes Last’ is Atwood’s strongest novel by a considerable margin (my review can be read at Shiny New Books), which makes it all the more important for me to remember how much I love her other work.
*I do not count her ‘to be published in 100 years time’ story for the Future Library in Oslo. It’s a lovely idea, but not useful for my own reading schedule!
I read quite a lot of Atwood when I was too young; this is the first book I remember ‘getting’ after reading it at 16. I love it and rank it with ‘I’m the King of the Castle’ for best literary presentations of bullying. I don’t have space here to list everything that’s great about this coming of age/looking back on youth novel but highlights include: what it’s like to be a ‘Feminist’ artist, horror magazines from the 1950s and the Toronto Beatnik scene. ‘The Handmaiden’s Tale’ may be more canonical, but ‘Cat’s Eye’ is a book I return to time and time again.
I’m a massive fan of historical Romances (Georgette Hayer, anyone?) and so ‘Lady Oracle’ was always going to be a favourite. Frankly, I’ll re-read it just for the excerpts from the heroine’s novels that are quoted in the larger narrative. The protagonist is an accidental writer who is torn between the secret pay-by-the-word generic stories she churns out to make a living and her unexpected fame following experiments in automatic writing. ‘Lady Oracle’ is a joy from start to finish and it also lays out the rules for writing historical romances:
The hero, a handsome, well-bred, slightly balding man, dressed in an immaculately tailored tweed coat, like Sherlock Holmes’s, pursued the heroine, crushing his lips to hers in a hansom cab and rumpling her pelisse. The villain, equally well-bred and similarly clad, did just about the same thing, except that in addition he thrust his hand inside her fichu…My first effort came back with instructions to the effect that I could not use words like ‘fichu’ … and ‘pelisse’ without explaining what they meant. I made the necessary revisions and received my first hundred pounds, with a request for more material.’ What’s not to love?
The Robber Bride is a tour de force in storytelling, not least because it has three equal protagonists each of whose story is narrated in a different style. I rarely re-read the whole book, instead, I’ll re-read Tony’s story (every third section) with it’s academic intelligence and worldly innocence, or Roz’s sections, full of self-depreciating humour and success. There is also an unknowable mythic ‘evil woman’ at the centre of the novel, but I don’t return to the book for her. Instead ‘The Robber Bride’ is one of my favourite novels because of how it tells the story of women who live in the shadow of others and who are so fascinating and rich in their own right.
Alias Grace is another novel that I re-read in sections, maybe I’m in the mood for a young ambitious doctor, maybe I feel like a mystical story of emigration and service, maybe I just want descriptions of quilts. Alias Grace is based on the true story of a shocking murder but, because it’s Atwood doing history, the complexity of ‘truth’ and ‘knowing’ soon dominate the narrative. Oh and there are also references to Nancy in ‘Oliver Twist’ and a fantastic seance scene. It is Margaret Atwood at her very best.
I’m ashamed to say that I was angry with this book when it came out, I really didn’t see why it won the Booker when none of the books above had done so. Backwards logic, I know, and also flawed because, once I’d calmed down, I realised that what I’d considered the book’s only fault was actually one of it’s greatest strengths. I’d been angry that, despite the multiple interweaving narratives (life story in the present, life story in the past, novel written in the past and famous in the present) I couldn’t identify the mixture of voices that I loved so much in ‘The Robber Bride.’ Yes, I know, I was an idiot. Anyway, it’s now on the ‘best of’ list, and it’s also a book I can happily re-read sections of, frankly I’ll read it for the pompous newspaper extracts alone.
These are my top five, hard though it is to narrow things down when every book by her is so wonderful. What do you think of the list? What would you add or take away? I’m sure I can’t be the only person out there who calls themselves Atwood’s biggest fan.
The much loved Atwood section of my bookshelf. If the covers are too battered for titles to be easily read, it’s all a sign of love and attention.