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Margaret Atwood at 79: the books you should be reading


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Margaret Atwood, novelist, essayist, winner of over 55 international awards and holder of over 20 honorary degrees, turns 79 today.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Yet despite these many accolades, for the vast majority of us Atwood is synonymous with one thing and one thing only: The Handmaid’s Tale. Published in 1985, the novel has taken on a whole new life in the twenty-first century through the critically-acclaimed Hulu series. Its timeliness – set against the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement – has ensured its commercial success, bringing the thirty year old novel to a fresh audience.

But there is more to Atwood than this one dystopian novel. Here, we dig deeper and go beyond The Handmaid’s Tale, to find you your next Atwood read.

Cat’s Eye (1988)
Set in Atwood’s native Canada, this novel follows Elaine’s journey into her past when she returns to her childhood home of Toronto for an exhibition of her artwork. Atwood focuses very closely upon the friendships between girls and women in this novel, with Elaine’s relationship with the destructive Cordelia at the heart of it. Moving from World War Two to the 1980s, the novel also takes in contemporary issues of feminism and artwork, making it equally as thought-provoking as the tale of Offred.

Alias Grace (1996)
If you’ve finished series 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale and need another Atwood-miniseries fix, Netflix’s adaptation of this novel would be as good a place as any to start. Atwood uses historical fact here, relating the story of Grace Marks, a servant convicted of murdering her master and his housekeeper in 1843. Through the invented character of Dr Simon Jordan, Atwood explores the nature of criminality and insanity, inviting us to reconsider our beliefs about murderers.

The Blind Assassin (2000)
A book within a book within a book resides with this novel’s pages, a complex structure which earned Atwood the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction, amongst many others. You need to stick with this one and all of its twists and turns, as the relationship between sisters Iris and Laura are laid bare in front of the reader.

The MaddAddam Trilogy: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013)
These would be my pick of Atwood’s back catalogue: a series of post-apocalyptic novels, set in the near future and frequently shifting between perspectives and times. Characters from each novel periodically appear in the others, whilst it is only when you’ve read all three that you get a real sense of what precisely happened to create the wasteland we’re first introduced to in Oryx and Crake. With a television adaptation rumoured to be in the works, this really is one to read beforehand and enjoy fully.

The Penelopiad (2005)
There’s no denying that Atwood novels can be very long, so this novella might be a good way in for those of us who have a slightly shorter attention span. A feminist retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, it focuses upon Penelope, the loyal wife of Odysseus, whilst Atwood borrows the device of the Greek chorus to provide alternative voices in the text. If you’ve always found Greek myths just a bit too testosterone-fuelled, this is the one for you. 

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