I love Margaret Atwood’s… how shall I put it?… non-science-fiction-fiction. I’ve enjoyed her dystopias, too, like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, but the books I’ve loved, the ones that have driven me to read them over and over, are books that take place in our own space and time: Cat’s Eye, for instance, and The Robber Bride, and short stories like Good Bones and Simple Murders. Even though they are often on similar themes and convey the same kinds of emotions as her futuristic novels, I find her contemporary books more compelling.
That’s why I was delighted to stumble across Moral Disorder, a book of closely-linked short stories that take place in our own familiar world. The first story introduces Nell and Tig, married and elderly, and the patchwork of thoughts and habits that make up a long-term relationship. From there, the arc moves back to the 11-year-old Nell, knitting a layette for her unexpected baby sister, Lizzie; her adolescence and rebellion; her encounter with Oona, who grooms her as a “second wife” and introduces her to Tig; her grappling with Lizzie’s schizophrenia, her stepsons’ hostility, and life on a farm; her mother’s final illness.
Atwood seems to me to cover more ground in these stories than she usually does in her novels. Most of her books that I love best deal with a relatively short period in someone’s life: childhood and adolescence, or young-womanhood, or working-womanhood. This book goes from childhood to old age, touching lightly along the way, never refraining from making you laugh or from biting you in a vulnerable place. Atwood deals with women’s roles here: what does it mean to be a wife as opposed to a partner? A mother as opposed to a stepmother? Are the words important? The stories build on each other, slowly, and the contrasts and comparisons are sometimes slow to appear. They are beautifully and sparely written, though that can sometimes make them feel a little disjointed, since there aren’t any flourishes to cover the seams.
I was so pleased to read these stories. At the end, though, I wanted even more. More about Nell, more about Lizzie, more about the farm. I wished it had been a novel — though normally I love short stories, and Atwood’s in particular. I hope she writes another contemporary novel soon. In the meantime, tide yourself over with this.