Margaret Atwood * Moral Disorder Book review

Atwood triumphs with these dazzling, personal stories in her first collection since Wilderness Tips.

“I’ve learned quite a lot, over the years, by avoiding what I was supposed to be learning.”

In these ten interrelated stories Atwood traces the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it, while evoking the drama and the humour that colour common experiences — the birth of a baby, divorce and remarriage, old age and death. With settings ranging from Toronto, northern Quebec, and rural Ontario, the stories begin in the present, as a couple no longer young situate themselves in a larger world no longer safe. Then the narrative goes back in time to the forties and moves chronologically forward toward the present. 

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood speaks during an interview at a hotel in Havana, Cuba, February 8, 2017. Picture taken on February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini – RTSY5HP

I thought of myself as an itinerant brain–the equivalent of a strolling player of Elizabethan times, or else a troubadour, clutching my university degree like a cheap lute.”

The first story begins with an elderly married couple, Tig and Nell, having breakfast and tea while discussing some horrific political murders occurring far away. This is the framework for the family stories to come. Nell’s girlhood is dedicated to the tender care and feeding of her difficult sister. She perpetually struggles with the pleasure and resentment of her lifelong role as caregiver to her sister, Tig, his sons, his ex-wife and, finally, her own parents. Her life-like Atwood’s book-is “a sock drawer into which a number of disparate things were shoved, a jumble.” Apparently personal, perhaps even autobiographical, these stories are knit together by the “moral disorder” Atwood sees in everyone from one generation to the next.

In “The Art of Cooking and Serving,” the twelve-year-old narrator does her best to accommodate the arrival of a baby sister. After she boldly declares her independence, we follow the narrator into young adulthood and then through a complex relationship. In “The Entities,” the story of two women haunted by the past unfolds. The magnificent last two stories reveal the heartbreaking old age of parents but circle back again to childhood, to complete the cycle.

“Dead was not an absolute concept to her. Some people were more dead than others, and finally it was a matter of opinion who was dead and who was alive, so it was best not to discuss such a thing.”

By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, tragic, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal, Moral Disorder displays Atwood’s celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage. This is vintage Atwood, writing at the height of her powers.

“Once, I discovered it propped up on my sister’s pillow, its neck wrapped in one of our mother’s best linen dishtowels. Cookie fragments on dolls’ plates were laid out around it, mixed with berries from the prickly-berry hedge, like offerings made to appease an idol. It was wearing a chaplet woven of carrot fronds and marigolds that my sister and Leonie had picked in the garden. The flowers were wilted, the garland was lopsided; the effect was astonishingly depraved, as if a debauched Roman emperor had arrived on the scene and had hacked off his own body in a maiden’s chamber as the ultimate sexual thrill.”

This book is not for people who require an exciting plot to carry the story. Though interesting and intriguing, it’s a soft story, not far from everyday in your own life. With her writing, wit, and insight into human thought and behavior, Atwood pulls you along through another person’s life, whether it be extraordinary or ordinary.

“Stories are no good, not even the short ones, because by the time you get to the second page he’s forgotten the beginning.
Where are we without our plots?”

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