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Margaret Atwood: Old Babes in the Wood review - bookending the short story | reviews, news & interviews

Margaret Atwood: Old Babes in the Wood review - bookending the short story

Margaret Atwood: Old Babes in the Wood review - bookending the short story

Semi-autobiographical tales of loss and love sit oddly among snails and aliens

Margaret Atwood(c) Luis Mora

Margaret Atwood has been writing for sixty years now, and, with her latest publication, she has given us a book of short stories in three parts, Old Babes in the Wood. These tales are engaging, but, as is frequently the case with short story collections, they don’t always hang together well.

There is a poignantly autobiographical element to many of the stories. The first and third sections centre on the lives of an elderly couple, Nell and Tig, then Nell’s solitary existence after the death of Tig. Atwood lost her own husband – the Canadian author Graeme Gibson – in 2019. Like Tig, Gibson faded towards the end, suffering from vascular dementia. Both had a brigadier for a father, both restored run-down houses in the middle of nowhere. There is a clear feeling here that Atwood is resurrecting a part of her husband, looking at moments in a long marriage, and dealing with the realities of widowhood.

Margaret AtwoodThe central section of the book drifts away from Nell and Tig, an odder heart that demonstrates Atwood’s excellent command of the bizarre and philosophical. In "Impatient Griselda", an alien being tells a 42-year-old "child" a strange and hilarious fairy story to entertain them in their quarantine (echoes of the Covid-19 pandemic sound throughout the book). "Metempsychosis" follows the life of a snail whose soul, upon dying, is transposed into the body of a young woman – much to its disgust and depression. "My Mother is Evil" is an affecting examination of the lengths that a parent will go to for their child. Then, Atwood returns to a world like that of her 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, in "Freeforall", set in a future where drug resistant STIs confine the remaining clean population to breeding colonies. She also includes-a wry look at the feminist academic community in "Airborne", which smuggles in a reference to Atwood’s own tweets about the gender fluidity present in the animal kingdom.

There is the semblance of an over-arching structure, and a unity of subject, but there are, if the book is taken as a whole, moments of thematic disjointedness. Nell and Tig, bookending the text as they do, are a great bridge between beginning and end, but unless the reader is to see the middle section as a reflection of the content of Nell/Atwood’s literary life in her middle years, Old Babes in the Wood can read as though Atwood had a clear idea for the story of Nell and Tig, but was also distracted by some other, more aleatory texts for which she wished to find a home.

This is not, however, to say that the stories are haphazard – far from it. There are also strands that tie the stories together: a sense of mortality, the meaning of life, and the location of the soul. An overarching theme, however, is the proximity of history. In both the first and the third sections, Atwood brings in characters who lived through the horrors of the Second World War. She breaks down the distance between them and the present day, describing them having affairs, fighting, returning to their families, but never being able to get away from what they suffered. Tig’s father sees the dead in the night, in another story an academic’s husband, with dementia, imagines himself fighting in planes he never flew, and in another, an old man is revolted by sardines after having to eat so many in an internment camp. Nell, looking at the family silver, imagines the lives of those who bought it, and in so doing, reminds us how only a generation or so separates us from them. As with the allusions to the Second World War, the reader is reminded that Atwood’s generation are one of the last links to these seemingly long-distant periods in history.

Old Babes in the Wood, while not, perhaps, Atwood’s greatest work, is nonetheless a clear demonstration of her prevailing skill as a writer. She plays with the weird and the eerie, but also the everyday and the emotional, reminding us that these things are not too far apart. It is also particularly touching that a large part of these stories serve as a reminder, in part, of the husband she has lost, and of a long life lived through words.


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