If you’re lucky enough to have scored tickets for Margaret Atwood’s appearance at Southbank Centre this October, firstly congratulations. Secondly, if you’re coming because you loved the recent television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale but haven’t otherwise engaged much with Atwood’s work, we’ve got you covered.
In this post we round up five further works by the grande dame of Canadian literature, so you can get some reading done ahead of her conversation with Gaby Wood here at Southbank Centre on 2 October.
A novelist since the 1960s, there’s a huge body of work to choose from but these titles will give you an idea of the vast range of genres and ideas this polymath has written in, and about – as well as some more of her speculative fiction.
OK, so we’re sneaking in three books under one heading here, but you’ll forgive us if you loved The Handmaid’s Tale. The trilogy begins with Oryx & Crake, which came out in 2003, and introduces the character of Snowman, who lives on his own in a bleak, seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape. Flashbacks reveal more about this character and his life in a society that is being altered irrevocably by scientists playing at gene mutation. In spite of all these sci-fi tropes, Atwood calls the book a love story.
It was followed by Year of the Flood (2009), which is a sort of retelling of Oryx & Crake from another angle, featuring a cast of new and recurring characters also coping with a world in chaos. In 2013 Atwood published MaddAddam. With these books, we’re back in similar territory to The Handmaid’s Tale, but if you think Margaret Atwood is all about the speculative, think again – our next recommendation is anything but.
This work of historical fiction, published in 1996, draws on the real life slayings of a housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, and her wealthy employer/lover Thomas Kinnear in Canada in 1843. Grace Marks, who lends her name to the title, was convicted of Kinnear’s murder along with her colleague James McDermott – but the case was always controversial, with many campaigning to set Grace free (McDermott’s sentence was public hanging).
Atwood tells part of the story via a fictional doctor called Simon Jordan, who interviews Grace. Although his interest is initially scientific, he is drawn into Grace’s tale and mystified at how this modest woman could’ve been involved in such a violent event. The New York Times praised the book for the ‘liveliness with which Ms Atwood toys with both our expectations and the conventions of the Victorian thriller’. It was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, eventually losing out to Graham Swift’s Last Orders.
It’s the latest of Atwood’s works to get the mini-series treatment, with Netflix making a six-hour adaptation. Watch the trailer, then read the book, before the series appears on 3 November.
Alias Grace is just one of Margaret Atwood’s numerous Booker Prize nominated titles, but it was with her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin that she won the coveted prize, ahead of authors including Kazuo Ishiguro and Trezza Azzopardi.
Narrated by Iris Chase Griffen, a cantankerous 81-year-old, The Blind Assassin switches between her present day life as a poor, infirm woman in a small Canadian town, and the story of her beautiful, talented sister Laura Chase, whose suicide as a young woman opens the novel’s action.
This extraordinary book encompasses much of 20th century history including the Second World War, while at the same time containing an embedded science fiction novel written by one of The Blind Assassin’s characters. There’s plenty of family drama and romance thrown in, resulting in a book that’s both a page turner and an achievement in modern literature. Time magazine chose it as one of the 100 best novels published since 1923, calling it ‘a tour-de-force of nested narratives, subtle reveals and buried memories’.
Maybe your heart feels heavy when you hear the words ‘contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’, but fear not – Atwood’s take on The Tempest was described by The Guardian as ‘riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun’.
In it, the character of Prospero is reimagined as Felix, the artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival who has spent 12 years plotting his revenge against the rival he believes thwarted the staging of what Felix envisaged as his masterpiece – an ambitious production of The Tempest.
Felix’s reprisal plan includes inmates involved in a prison drama scheme, an Ariel who transforms periodically into a firefly, and a rap song. What could possibly go wrong?
Hag Seed is part of a series of books commissioned by Vintage called Hogarth Shakespeare, which sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. The project celebrates 100 years since Virginia and Leonard Woolf set up the Hogarth Press in 1917. Other books published in this series to date are Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew).
It also includes Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, based on Othello, which you can hear her discuss at this year’s London Literature Festival YA Weekender.
Published in 1988, Cat’s Eye is about a painter, Elaine Risley, who returns to her hometown of Toronto aged 50, for a retrospective of her work.
She begins looking back on her childhood, school years and her emergence as a feminist artist. At the heart of these remembrances is Cordelia, a friend who bullied Elaine almost to death but to whom Elaine remains drawn, even after the power she holds over her is broken (by, of all things, a vision of the Virgin Mary).
As they grow older, Cordelia and Elaine’s roles swap – Elaine finds success in her work as an artist while Cordelia struggles with her mental health, eventually ending up in a institution and asking Elaine to help her escape.
If you’re still suffering the trauma of childhood bullying maybe this isn’t the novel for you – Atwood powerfully captures the desperation of characters trapped and alone, living in a waking nightmare. But at the same time it is a poignant and moving story about female friendship, which just might be cathartic.