Margaret Atwood’s arrival on the main stage of the Philharmonic Hall is met with the sort of rapturous welcome more often reserved for the most avidly-followed rock star. Quite right. There can be few authors who have had such an impact with novels, short stories, graphic novels, essays, children’s books and poems; fewer still who’ve moved with such ease between dystopias, satires, fiction and nonfiction.
Her most well-known and influential work is surely The Handmaid’s Tale, rightly celebrated both as a damning inditement of the world as it was at the it was written, and as a timely warning of how dystopian the world would become if misogyny went unaddressed and continued to flourish. Though these aspects of the novel are rightly lauded, its huge impact is also down to just how well it is written: Atwood’s characters feel fully fleshed, and her poetic use of metaphor turns the feeling of constant surveillance and brutally-enforced control into a palpable sense of dread.
Even with all of that meaning, weight and substance, the book neatly avoids falling into the trap of being merely worthy, and is as riveting a page-turner as even the most feted thriller.
The deserving recipient of countless awards and accolades, Margaret Atwood would, then, deserve a place in the firmament for that novel alone – but how lucky we are that she refuses to be defined by any one work, or to be confined by any outside conception of who she should be, either as a person or as an artist.
Other great novels include Oryx and Crake, which could be described as social science fiction, involving as it does the aftermath of the effects of genetic and pharmacological manipulation on humanity; The Edible Woman, a protofeminist novel about identity and the constriction of gender stereotypes; and Alias Grace, which uses the real-life 1843 Canadian murders of of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery as a jumping-off point, and portrays the fascination the focusses on Grace Marks, one of two of Kinnear’s servants who, along with James McDermot, was convicted of the murders.
Even as I write this short list, I know my summaries are woefully inadequate. Inevitable, perhaps, when even the titles themselves are virtually works of art in their own right.
As you’d expect from such a gifted storyteller, she regales us with jokes and anecdotes, but is equally adept at framing more complex ideas and arguments in forms that are easily understood, whilst never losing the ring of truth.
There are one or two sticky moments in the evening’s proceedings. Kirsty Wark – ever the consummate journalist – builds on the research she’s clearly done, and conversations they’ve shared in advance of her interview; but Atwood – ever the consummate storyteller – knows the audience will appreciate the conversation more if she backtracks, giving us more context, rather than simply accepting without question each of the conversational relay batons Wark offers.
Even this, though, gives us further insight into Atwood’s character, and her steadfast refusal to be pigeonholed.
Along the way, we’re treated to a marvellous reading by Maxine Peak of one of the linked short stories woven through Atwood’s new collection, Old Babes in the Wood, this one written in the form of a letter that at first expresses the deep truths about the life of the letter-writer, but is then discarded in favour of a note that expresses platitudes likely to be more palatable to the recipient. As a piece of writing, it is both completely accessible and extremely funny, whilst simultaneously hugely warming, and instantly recognisable. It takes a real gift and mastery of the craft to make writing this good seem so effortlessly graceful.
Given the magic she weaves out of thin air, it seems somehow fitting that she is possibly related to Mary Webster, survivor of an attempted lynching during the 17th-century witch trials, and that there are a large number of feline pets named Margaret Catwood in her honour. An international treasure, her warm and often impish personality, along with a razor-sharp mind, have been harnessed to produce a life-long body of work that reflects her humanism every bit as much as her virtuosic sense of the aesthetic. The world is immeasurably richer with Margaret Atwood – and her writing – in it.