Book Reviews

Margaret Atwood – Life before man

Look, I’m smiling at you, I’m smiling in you, I’m smiling through you. How can I be dead if I breathe in every quiver of your hand?

– Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky), The Icicle

Oh wow, what a book this has been. I read it in short bursts and I must say it’s one of the best stories from Margaret Atwood (Besides the Blind Assassin and The Edible Woman) dealing with the dissolution of a marriage post infidelity from one of the partners. It reminded me in spots of Hausfrau but while the heroine from Jill Essbaum committed suicide in the end for not being able to break through the boredom of the daily married couple, Margaret’s wife decides to live on, for the children.

Imprisoned by walls of their own construction, here are three people, each in midlife, in midcrisis, forced to make choices–after the rules have changed. Elizabeth, with her controlled sensuality, her suppressed rage, is married to the wrong man. She has just lost her latest lover to suicide. Nate, her gentle, indecisive husband, is planning to leave her for Lesje, a perennial innocent who prefers dinosaurs to men. Hanging over them all is the ghost of Elizabeth’s dead lover…and the dizzying threat of three lives careening inevitably toward the same climax.

Nate and Elizabeth are an unhappily married couple, with both husband and wife involved in extramarital affairs. Lesje, pronounced ‘Lashia,’ is Nate’s lover of Ukrainian ancestry and works along with his wife in the museum of natural history as a paleontologistfascinated by dinosaurs, giving the book its title. Elizabeth, said to have been inspired by Shirley Gibson, ex-wife of Atwood’s partner Graeme Gibson,[1] also takes a lover, Chris, who recently committed suicide. All three of the novel’s main characters influence the narration, with each chapter presenting events from a particular character’s perspective.

We have a very interesting love triangle going on. Elizabeth is married to Nate. Elizabeth has had a string of lovers, but she always told Nate about them just before she was ready to let them go. Until Chris came along and Chris killed himself because he could not be with her. Elizabeth plunges into nothingness and is unwilling to keep living normally, just passes the days in a stupor. Nate falls in love with one of Elizabeth’s coworkers, exotic Lesje and has an affair with her, dumping his previous par-amour Martha.

Elizabeth, notices the increased interest in Lesje, and comes out to fight for her marriage again. She breaks Lesje and her boyfriend William up, thinking that they will make up and leave her husband alone, but Lesje decides to move out and move in with Nate. Let the divorce proceedings begin.

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I loved the book as it delved into each of the people’s backgrounds, motivations and ideas and you can see and understand why each person moved the way they did over the chessboard that is life. But in the end, the Queen takes all.

Nothing is more painful than going through a break-up. You start wandering whether you were at any point, the chosen one? You don’t feel special anymore. You have trust issues. And you feel sometimes that world is not worth living anymore.

THE HEAVENS ARE CALLING YOU AND WHEEL AROUND YOU DISPLAYING TO YOU THEIR ETERNAL BEAUTIES AND STILL YOUR EYE IS LOOKING ON THE GROUND

– DANTE

Elizabeth – the wife
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Elizabeth is a woman to be reckon with. Strong but week in front of strong emotions, she feels like life is crawling away from her. She feels the temptation of suicide throughout the book, the call of the dead ex-lover Chris beckoning her to join him.

Sand runs through her glass body, from her head down to her feet. When it’s all gone she’ll be dead. Buried alive. Why wait?

She has her own demons, most of them embedded in the form of Aunt Muriel who hauled her from her drunk mother and raised her and her sister together.

Auntie Muriel terrifies her because she doesn’t know where to stop. Other people have lines they won’t step over, but for Auntie Muriel such lines do not exist. Elizabeth’s other fear is that these lines do not exist in herself, either.  

She needs a form of excitement that Nate can’t give her anymore. A lover, then another, then another. Always leaving them before they started to get too attached, to become a danger to her status quo, to her family, her two daughters and her husband.

She’s amazed sometimes at the lengths to which people will go to distract themselves. She amazes herself.

When Chris died, she started stagnating, not moving on, but not regressing either. When Nate stopped bringing her tea in her room and started hanging out more outside the house, she knows that something is happening. She meets up with Martha, Nate’s previous extra-marital affair, but she knows nothing, she is not seeing Nate again – so it must be something new, someone new. When the kids mention the nice lady that showed them the dinosaurs, she knows that the other woman is Lesje and that Nate is with her now.  Their relationship starts in the summer and last a whole year before she takes action. In the mean time, we can see the seasons coming and going, Halloween, then Christmas, then spring time.

Halloween_day-010She hands each a bundle and drops coins into their slotted tins. They twitter happily among themselves, thank her, and patter across the porch, not knowing, really, what night this is or what, with their small decorated bodies, they truly represent. All Souls. Not just friendly souls but all souls. They are souls, come back, crying at the door, hungry, mourning their lost lives. You give them food, money, anything to substitute for your love and blood, hoping it will be enough, waiting for them to go away.  

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Lesje – the other woman

Lesje, pronounced ‘Lashia,’ is Nate’s lover of Ukrainian ancestry and works along with his wife in the museum of natural history as a paleontologist, fascinated by dinosaurs, giving the book its title.  She is proud of her ancestry, with the two grandmas always fighting over their granddaughter, with her ethnic background and her bright mind.

I’m not Russian, I’m not Polish, I am not Romanian, Kiss me once, kiss me twice, Kiss me, I’m Ukrainian 

I liked her as I could see parts of me in her and parts of her in me. She is together with William, a bland man (until provoked) and he does not take her home to his parent’s over Christmas (which for me shows the level of dedication he has for their relationship).

William’s family probably doesn’t have much more money than her own family does. They only have more pretensions.

Once she’d been afraid to meet them, fearing their verdict. Now she’d love to. She’d paint her teeth gold and come in jingling a tambourine and stamping her feet, her head covered with fringed shawls.

She falls in love with Nate and as their affair progresses, she keeps thinking of how to leave William, how to let him go easy, how to disentangle herself from their relationship without hurting him too much.

Ever since she’s come to suspect that she may eventually leave him, she’s been very solicitous about William. She buys him surprises, tinned sardines, clams, things he likes. When he sniffles she gets him pills, lemons and boxes of Kleenex. It’s as if she wants to make sure he’s in good condition when she passes him on, trades him in. See, she’ll say to him. Look how healthy you are. You don’t need me.

Marriage is an event, a fact, it can be discussed at the dinner table. So is divorce. They create a framework, a beginning, an ending. Without them everything is amorphous, an endless middle ground, stretching like a prairie on either side of each day.

But William has one last surprise for her. As Lesje is delaying the split from her boyfriend to be with Nate, Elizabeth steps in and she tells William all about his girlfriend’s infidelity. She thought that William will confront her, they’ll fight, they’ll reconcile and Lesje and William will be a couple again, leaving Nate for her only.

This backfires as William has a cruel side to him. Having found out he has been cheated on, he waits for Lesje and rapes her. The next day he behaves like nothing’s happened and Lesje makes a bold move – she leaves William and moves in into her own place, waiting for Nate to join her as he separates and then divorces his wife.

She is always thinking back on her two grandmothers, their impact on her being greater than that of her parents.

Will they still be doing this in twenty years? Older women, old women, wearing black and not speaking; ill-wishing; never seeing each other, but each keeping the other locked in her head, a secret area of darkness like a tumor or the black vortex at the center of a target. Someday they may be grandmothers.  

Elizabeth – the wife

Elizabeth, trying to figure out how her plan went wrong, approaches William again and has lunch with him. In an attempt to have a small victory over the woman who stole her man, she sleeps with William, thinking it would make her feel better. But William is not Chris, he’s not mysterious to her, she does not feel attracted to him.

Copulating with William was not unpleasant, she thinks, but neither was it memorable. It was like sleeping with a large and fairly active slab of Philadelphia cream cheese. Emulsified. It isn’t that William is without mystery. He’s probably as mysterious as any other object in the universe: a bottle, an apple. It’s just that his mystery is not of the kind that usually intrigues Elizabeth.

But she doesn’t like boxes whose contents she can guess. Why open William? For her he contains no surprises. Chris had been a dangerous country, swarming with ambushes and guerrillas, the center of a whirlpool, a demon lover. Maybe for someone else William would be that: Elizabeth is old enough to know that one woman’s demon lover is another’s worn-out shoe. She doesn’t begrudge Lesje the fascination Nate evidently holds for her, since she’s never experienced it herself. What she envies is not the people involved but the fact. She wishes she could feel that again, for anyone at all.

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Elizabeth is planning her revenge

Elizabeth is struggling now. She is definitely loosing Nate as he is spending more and more nights at Lesje’s place so she is using the only few weapons she’s got: Money and Children. So she creates a plan for divorce that will keep the children having the same lifestyle – all paid from their dead-beat’s dad account. Just that Nate does not make anything – or almost anything – from wooden toys. He will have to go back to being a lawyer and then all the money he earns will go back to her and the kids. She even considers purchasing a cat and having the vet bills go to Nate. Then she starts harassing Lesjle by phoning her about small things the girls have left behind while visiting. And dropping off the girls with Lesjle when she is not expecting it. Nothing destroys romance quicker than two children.

A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her.

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Nate – the husband

home-img1Nate is a typical male. He wanted to do something useful with his hands, an honest living, so he dropped his lawyer career and become a handy-man, doing toys out of wood for children. He does not earn a lot but enough to buy a beer or two. He occasionally borrows money from Elizabeth and then from Lesje (to buy a birthday cake for Elizabeth!). He is living with the constant reminder from his mother that he is not living up to the height of his potential – he could be a civil rights lawyer, a person fighting for the freedom of others, but instead he lives at the border of poverty doing something he likes and nobody wants anymore.

He has two daughters which he loves and in a moment of intimacy, he confesses to Lesje that he wants a child with her. He retracts his statement afterwards saying that it was just a show, a few words to say how much he appreciates her but there is no way they can afford a child – especially when all his money will be going to Elizabeth to keep her in her used lifestyle. He looks at his two daughters and he is suddenly aware they will change.

Soon they will be women , and that recognition runs through him like a needle. They will demand brassieres and then reject them, blaming both needs on him. They will criticize his clothes, his job, his turn of phrase. They’ll leave home to live with surly, scrofulous young men; or they’ll marry dentists and go in for white rugs and hanging sculptures made of wool. Either way they will judge him. Motherless, childless, he sits at the kitchen table, the solitary wanderer, under the cold red stars. 

His affair is not the first one. He was with Martha before, a woman which was the complete opposite of his controlling wife, a warm and big woman, a woman where he could go and bury his problems. Lesjle is the opposite of Martha – lithe and small, thin and independent – strong in her own way. It looks like Nate is looking for a woman like his mother (Freud here!) – that will be able to support him and do everything for him while still doing his own thing.

Lesje – the other woman

As the details of the divorce become clearer and clearer, Lesje sees her fantasy of living with Nate slowly dissipating. She is living in meagre conditions, barely affording a run-down place and a mattress that smells of mice-droppings. Nate cannot contribute towards any household appliances and her time with him is riddled with his children who barely stand her, with calls from Elizabeth, with him running off to her when she calls and beckons. She is now in a relationship with Nate and Nate’s family. He comes as a package deal. She is now a stand-in-mum.

Mummy . A dried corpse in a gilded case. Mum , silent. Mama , short for mammary gland. A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed. If you didn’t want trees sucking at your sweet flowing breast why did you have children?  

She is waiting for him to be hers again but she wants to keep moving

Keep moving, they said to those almost frozen, those who had taken too many pills, those in shock. U-Haul, An Adventure in Moving. I want to be moved. Move me. We are the numb. Long years ago/We did this or that. And now we sit . 

So she does the one thing she can. She falls pregnant. Through the doubts, through the problems, she will have something of Nate’s that will be hers, something that will bind him to her forever.

The story ends with the end of Aunt Muriel and Elizabeth and Nate attending the funeral. They split afterwards, Nate goes to the museum to talk to Lesje, Elizabeth thinks of her life while watching museum artefacts. Life goes on.

‘How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow. And the kings of the earth, who have committed fornication and lived deliciously with her, shall bewail her, and lament for her, when they shall see the smoke of her burning.’’ 


Abut the Author

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in thirty-five countries, is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy

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