There is always interest when Margaret Atwood publishes, and has been since she launched The Edible Woman in 1969, an early sight of her feminist credentials. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was very soon lauded as a classic and important text, a reputation which has been taken even further with the television adaptation. There are 17 novels to choose from, and even more poetry collections if you include the three different Selected Poems. There are also collections of short stories. There’s sharp-eyed observation, there is social realism and there is speculative fiction – such a range in her writing. At 83 years old, she is a revered figure in the literary world, but still very much active. Her new collection of short stories, Old Babes in the Wood, has just been released – a teasing title combining age with the innocence of childhood.
The collection is in three sections. At the beginning and end are sequences of stories about elderly people, reflecting on their past and the changes of the world around them, As Sam Leith says in his review in The Guardian, the stories are ‘full of sass and sadness’. The section in the middle shows Atwood’s sense of fun and variety, with a real mix of subject matter. Metempsychosis, for example, is ‘a delightful description of a snail’s dismay as it finds its soul transferred into the body of a human being’.
Rebecca Makkai’s review in The New York Times also celebrates the collection, urging readers who are only familiar with Atwood’s novels to grab the short stories: ‘Get your act together. You’ve been missing out.’ She feels that some of the ‘Covid invocations feel tacked on’ in some of the stories, but like Leith, appreciates the audacity of the range: ‘This is our four-faced Janus, who’s got one face turned to the past, one to the present, one to the future and the fourth inside a spaceship, telling stories about eating horses.’
And if you want to have a sample of the stories before trying the book, you can, because one of them, Widows, has been published in The Guardian. It has pathos, it’s funny, and has a twist – classic Atwood.
Blog post about Atwood
Discussion of her short story When It Happens