Press ESC or click the X to close this window

Susan’s Bookshelves: Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

I have loved and admired (most of) Margaret Atwood’s fiction for a very long time. She is, of course, supremely intelligent and knowledgeable but that never gets in the way of accessibility. She understands that you can be an expert on music or art but still need to cook dinner. You might have a top flight academic brain but you still chose your lipstick carefully and enjoy cold water swimming. So I pounced on this new collection of short stories with glee. This time, much of the writing feels very personal and I was much moved as well as entranced.

Some of these fifteen stories have been published before. Others are new. Most of them are reflective snapshots of life rather than action-driven narratives. The first three  and the last four relate to a couple called Tig and Nell  as they journey through life towards her eventual widowhood. They go for walks, fix things in the house, share, debate and do all the things contented couples do until eventually Tig is swallowed first by dementia and then by death. Some of the feelings – finding a note in Tig’s handwriting after his death or dreaming about him just being there – are heart-wrenchingly familiar. Atwood’s husband Graeme Gibson died in September 2019, by coincidence less than a month after the death of my own my own husband, Nick. I rarely allow myself to cry or grieve – whatever the counsellors and their ilk say, thinking about other things and striding on with life works better for me –   but Atwood penetrated my armour with these stories. In her end acknowledgements she writes: “And as always [thanks] to Graeme Gibson, who was with me for many but not all of the years in which these stories were written, and who is still very much with me, although not in the usual way.” And I wept. Yes, yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is. And she captures that feeling for her fictional Nell too.

The centre panel of this triptych-like volume comprises eight stories not about Tig and Nell. I enjoyed the The Dead Interview – a perceptive and witty “interview” with the late George Orwell in which she updates him on what’s now PC and what isn’t, as well as probing him about his wife Eileen. It makes serious points but does it lightly and it’s fun. There’s a funny but wickedly perceptive tale about two women of a certain age taking tea in the garden during Covid. Probably the most chilling story in this collection is Freeforall which posits an Atwoodian world in which “a sexually transmitted disease has swept through humanity” Men and women therefore have to be “kept” separately while matriarchs arrange marriages between  uncontaminated indiviudals to ensure the procreation of healthy babies. Like all her dystopian fiction, somehow it seems horribly plausible, especially after Covid.

I hadn’t – oddly – read any reviews of this book (published March 2024). I simply spotted it while browsing in Beckenham Books, my local independent bookshop. And I’m very glad I did.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Big Lies by Mark Kurlansky

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
More posts by Susan Elkin