Margaret Atwood – Bodily Harm

A powerfully and brilliantly crafted novel, Bodily Harm is the story of Rennie Wilford, a young journalist whose life has begun to shatter around the edges. Rennie flies to the Caribbean to recuperate, and on the tiny island of St. Antoine she is confronted by a world where her rules for survival no longer apply. By turns comic, satiric, relentless, and terrifying, Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm is ultimately an exploration of the lust for power, both sexual and political, and the need for compassion that goes beyond what we ordinarily mean by love.

Bodily Harm was published in 1981. It could have been written yesterday. Rennie, version 2012, would have her laptop stolen, Wifi service on St. Antoine would be non-existent. There would still be a revolution, still be people desperate or amoral enough to use a vulnerable, hapless woman.

Welcome to the world of Rennie Wilford, small-town Canadian making an unsatisfying living as a free-lance writer in Toronto. Rennie once had hopes of a career in journalism, exposing political outrages and human rights’ violations. She now writes lifestyle pieces, at times inventing fashion trends to create an assignment that will pay the rent.

Rennie’s life is a series of betrayals. Her editors, her boyfriend, her body – all out to use and abuse her. When menaced by a stranger who leaves his murder weapon as a calling card, Rennie decides it’s time to leave town for a while. She accepts an assignment – a fluff travel piece- in a flyspeck island in the Caribbean, St. Antoine. Which is experiencing a bloody revolution!

If there’s anything else that can go wrong in Rennie’s life, Atwood is certain to ferret it out and make it happen.

As a reader, you are forced to suspend empathy with Rennie. Atwood treats her cruelly, putting her in impossible situations or making her behave in ridiculous ways. It is hard not to cringe, not to wave your hands and shout “Don’t do it!” You must read passively, watching this depressed and depressing young woman crash and burn.

All under the constant threat of death from within: Rennie is a breast-cancer survivor and even though she’s in remission after one of the breasts got cut off, she can feel the time ticking for her.

She crosses her arms, right thumb against the scar under her dress. The scar prods at her, a reminder, a silent voice counting, a countdown. Zero is waiting somewhere, whoever said there was life everlasting; so why feel grateful? She doesn’t have much time left, for anything. But neither does anyone else. She’s paying attention, that’s all.

She will never be rescued. She has already been rescued. She is not exempt. Instead she is lucky, suddenly, finally, she’s overflowing with luck, it’s this luck holding her up.

This one is visceral and disturbing, for me. I laughed out loud more than almost any other Atwood that I’ve read. But there’s a dark current beneath. It’s a brilliant book; an engaging and frightening read. Well balanced. Well paced. Impeccable characterisations. Lovely use of tense and mesmerising fluctuations between past, present and future.

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