Magazine article The Spectator

Weapons and Dark Places

Magazine article The Spectator

Weapons and Dark Places

Article excerpt

MORAL DISORDER by Margaret Atwood Bloomsbury, £15.99, pp. 272, ISBN 0747581622 . £12.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'All that anxiety and anger, those dubious good intentions, those tangled lives, that blood. I can tell about it or I can bury it. In the end, we'll all become stories.' The voice belongs to Nell, the central character of these 11 linked stories, but it could be that of her creator, for these subjects are Margaret Atwood's speciality. Fortunately for her readers, Atwood chooses to 'tell' not to 'bury'; the result is a deeply interesting book.

The stories are episodes from Canadian 20th-century life, one for each decade. They could stand alone, but put together they make a novel, one that frees itself from the usual constraints.

The 'disorder' of the title is reflected in the apparent disorder of the narrative.

We are required to make jumps forwards and backwards in time, from first-person to third-person narration, from cabin to city to farm, from the conscious to the dreaming or daydreaming mind. In the hands of a lesser writer this would confuse, but Atwood never falters; this is a compelling and lucid composite portrait of a woman, her country and her times.

Nell is intelligent, strenuous, haunted by the wrong she might have done -- and might still do -- to others. She is both fascinated and oppressed by a sense of parallel experience, of 'layer upon layer of lives lived out'. Her imagination opens portals to 'the other place'; she cannot rid herself of the sense that 'I've missed the life that was supposed to be mine.' Dark places -- tunnels, cellars, trunks, empty rooms -- feature in every story, as do images of weapons (especially axes) and dismemberment. Atwood borrows the props of myth and folklore to examine the interplay of Nell's lived and unlived experience, but she does so subtly and unobtrusively -- we are never clobbered by a symbol. …

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