Alias Atwood

March 10, 2009

“He was deciding whether to cut her throat or love her forever.

Right. Yes. The usual choices.”

-Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

My favourite writer is Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Like with so many things, it is difficult to pin down exactly why I adore her. I know that my literary training should make me a detached reader capable of objective criticism, but when it comes to Atwood, all I can do is gush. She is one of the writers I envy; one I can identify with and whose talent I wish I could equal. Her ingenuity both encourages me to try harder, and discourages me, because I know I’ll never be as good. All of her novels are psychologically intriguing, and I love the intricate design of each one of them. She renews herself every time; she doesn’t write the same novel over and over again, but develops a new idea, a new approach and a new style – often even a new genre – in all of them. The acclaimed Alias Grace is full of suspense and romance, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are futuristic novels, Surfacing a growth story… Not even attempting to avoid clichés, I shall say that each of her novels is a unique journey. And the ending usually offers a surprise or two (some of them foreseeable, however).

Atwood’s novel in 2000, The Blind Assassin, won the Booker Prize, and not for nothing. In this novel, Atwood combines many elements of truth and fiction into an intricate web of stories. The main story is about two sisters, Laura and Iris Chase, living in the 1940s. Laura dies under suspicious circumstances, and we hear the story of their lives through Iris’s perspective – intertwined with excerpts from Laura’s novel, published posthumously. Their story is ruthless and desperate, full of human feelings, love and despair, jealousy, denial, fear of living, loving and forgetting. Happiness that never lasts for more than a moment. Right. Yes. The usual stuff.

Atwood’s poetry leaves you breathless. Some of it is delicate and fragile, so beautiful that I feel like I’m crushing her words just by reading them out loud. Some of it is haunting – full of inexplicable imagery, dark and morbid, strange and elusive, that somehow makes sense. Some of Atwood’s poems have saved me at times of despair, by reading my mind and putting my thoughts into words, yet making me realise something new at the same time. Sometimes it only takes a word or two to change perspective. Margaret Atwood knows this well. Indeed, in her poem “The Double Voice” she describes the two voices that take “turns using [her] eyes”. These voices are the different perspectives that come through in most of her poetry; the voice or perspective that sees the poetic, romantic things in life, and the other that focuses on the morbid, the voice of painful realism that sees the rawness of life:

One saw through my

bleared and gradually

bleaching eyes, red leaves,

the rituals of seasons and rivers

The other found a dead dog

jubilant with maggots

half-buried among the sweet peas.

This is the contrast, the irony that I love in Atwood’s poetry; how easily she can shift between imagination and reality; between beauty and horror; between the poetic and the mundane. She succeeds in combining so many elements without losing credibility. She can express the most beautiful thoughts with such simplicity:

I would like to be the air

that inhabits you for a moment

only. I would like to be that unnoticed

& that necessary.

She writes of the earth, of animals as well as humans, what it is to be alive or dead; she writes of death. She relishes in violent imagery. She turns death into poetry, and vice versa:

It isn’t only

for food I hunt them

but for the hunt and because

they smell of death and the waxy

skins of the newborn,

flesh into earth into flesh.

Here is the handful

of shadow I have brought back to you:

this decay, this hope, this mouth-

ful of dirt, this poetry.

She is brutal and honest, and uses humour and irony in the same, seemingly direct manner, which makes me (even if not everyone) burst out laughing – and sometimes crying at the same time:

You held out your hand

I took your fingerprints

You asked for love

I gave you only descriptions

Please die I said

so I can write about it

Atwood’s voice is original and fresh. Her humour and the way she uses words to her own purposes make for breathtaking imagery, whereas her morbid images of death and violence shock you to the core. Her poetry changes your perspective, and – simply – it makes you feel. What more could one ask for?


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