Bookish Birthdays: Margaret Atwood

18th Nov 2010

Bookish Birthdays: Margaret Atwood

Today we say Happy Birthday to Margaret Atwood, born 18th November 1939 in Ottawa. A novelist, poet, essayist, critic, activist and Twitter user extraordinaire, Atwood wears many hats. We doff ours to her on her 71st birthday…

Margaret Atwood is perhaps best known for her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which was first published 25 years ago. Painting a distressing picture of a Totalitarian regime and widespread oppression, it is clever, imaginative, beautifully crafted and terrifying – terrifying because the world in which it’s set is not unimaginable.

Offred, the central character, is stripped of her individuality,  and her feminity is reduced to one function: to breed. It is a powerful exploration of the female psyche and the roles played by women in society – it’s no surprise that it features regularly on Feminist Theory/Gender Studies readng lists as well as on A Level Literature curricula.

The Handmaid’s Tale was awarded the first ever Arthur C Clarke Award in 1987; whilst this award recognises achievement in Science Fiction writing, Atwood has always preferred to describe her work as ‘speculative fiction’.  Whether we choose to label her work as sci/speculative/literary/other fiction, Margaret Atwood is inventive and not afraid to break the rules and defy expectations.

She transported us again to a dystopian future in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Filled with genetically mutated creatures, nations in a state of economic collapse, and technological overload, these books are nevertheless rooted in stories of human experience.

Atwood pulls no punches and doesn’t allow the reader a comfortable distance – these aren’t worlds many moons away and it isn’t the work of an alien race; these are worlds created by us, toxic spills of a civilisation bereft of morals and ethics. But you get the sense that she hasn’t yet given up hope on the power of people and the power of language.

As well as winning awards left, right and centre for her novels, Atwood is also a prolific writer of poetry, literary criticism and short stories. Much of this work draws on myths and fairytales, allegorical stories from the Bible and beyond – The Tent is a collection of shorts where she knowingly plays with different styles and references, breathing life into ancient stories. She has also written extensively about Canadian history, literature and identity.

I’ve just started reading The Edible Woman, a tale of expectations, marriage, and the relationships between men and women.  I’m only 20 pages in but it’s living up to expectations – intelligent, insightful, darkly comic and so damn difficult to put down.

A very Happy Birthday to you, Margaret Atwood. May your books long continue to pile high on my bookshelf!

Alex Herod