Book Review: Margaret Atwood Can Do No Wrong

Murder in the Dark
Margaret Atwood
I know I am prone to hyperbole, but sheesh, Margaret Atwood really knows how to write. I am always a little stunned to enounter avid readers who are lukewarm, or even dare I say, cold, to Atwood’s genius. Her fiction is always interesting, sometimes disturbing, and in many cases substantively challenging, but it is all written in beautiful, clear language that is a pleasure in itself. Over at Savidge Reads Simon’s Gran got it exactly right when she said that Atwood “isn’t one to be missed, even when I don’t like her”.

Thanks to some ordering stupidity on my part, I won’t be getting Atwood’s newest novel The Year of the Flood until the end of October. So I have had to make do with Murder in the Dark, a slim volume of “short fictions and prose poems”. One of my favorites was a piece called “Women’s Novels” which isn’t much more than a numbered list of observations, but it encapsulates all of Atwood’s insight, humor, and clever writing. A few of my favorite bits:

Men’s novels are about men. Women’s novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men’s novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can’t have a women’s novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men’s novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women’s novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it’s the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it’s the sense of humour. It’s hard to have a sense of humour in a cloak, in high wind, on a moor.


I like to read novels in which the heroine has a costume rustling discreetly over her breasts, or discreet breasts rustling under her costume; in any case there must be a costume, some breasts, some rustling, and, over all, discretion. Discretion over all, like a fog, a miasma through which the outlines of things appear only vaguely. A glimpse of pink through the gloom, the sound of breathing, satin slithering to the floor, revealing what? Never mind, I say. Never never mind.

Another piece called “Happy Endings” is a kind of “choose your own adventure” tale about relationships. After offering six different endings to follow the phrase “John and Mary meet” Atwood ultimately concludes:

You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality. The only authentic ending is the one provided here: John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

On bread: “The bread they offered you is subversive, it’s treacherous, it does not mean life.” Subversive bread. Fabulous.

On writing:

The page waits, pretending to be blank. Is that its appeal, its blankness? What else is this smooth and white, this terrifyingly innocent? A snow fall, a glacier? It’s a desert, totally arid, without life. But people venture into such places. Why? To see how much they can endure, how much dry light?


The question about the page is: what is beneath it? It seems to have only two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing, you say, disappointed. But you were looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story.

I could continue to quote, but perhaps, for the sake of copyright laws, I should encourage you get a copy of Murder in the Dark and read it for yourself.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Margaret Atwood Can Do No Wrong

  1. Jenny September 22, 2009 / 3:51 pm

    I'm struggling to get through one of Margaret Atwood's books right now, making this the second of her books I've not been able to get on with. And The Handmaid's Tale was so incredible! I love the quotes you've excerpted, so I guess I will plunge in and try again.


  2. Jenners September 22, 2009 / 9:30 pm

    Well, I'm not with you in the Margaret Atwood fan club BUT those excerpts you shared were pretty darn good. Perhaps I can be converted.


  3. Thomas September 22, 2009 / 11:05 pm

    Jenny: Which one are you struggling with?

    Jenners: I think some of her later fiction can be less than appealing to those who aren't already fans.

    I think her first novel The Edible Woman (1969) is a good place to start, or try again, with Atwood. Story is a little more everyday and relate-able.


  4. Paperback Reader September 23, 2009 / 6:22 am

    Oh what wonderful quotes! I love Atwood and have been desperately wanting to curl up with one of her books of late.


  5. Diane September 23, 2009 / 1:28 pm

    I like Atwood, although this is one i have not read. The quotes make me want to though. On my list to look for at future books sales. (No new purchases for me for a while)..LOL

    I did pull 26 paperbacks off my shelves today to donate, so I'm making progress :)


  6. bookbabie September 24, 2009 / 9:08 am

    Okay, I'm definitely checking this one out. I do think you she is one of those authors you need to be in the right mood, or frame of mind, to read though:)


  7. Ti September 24, 2009 / 4:21 pm

    I enjoy Atwood but haven't read her most recent work. She's quirky and odd and she always manages to grab my attention.

    My book group read Edible Woman and we had a field day with that one. Opinions were all over the place but it generated a lot of discussion which is what one hopes for in a book club book.


  8. John Self September 28, 2009 / 5:41 am

    “I am always a little stunned to enounter avid readers who are lukewarm, or even dare I say, cold, to Atwood's genius.”

    Ahem – guilty as charged! I did really like Wilderness Tips but nothing of hers I've read since – which amounts to some of The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale and all of The Robber Bride – has done anything for me.

    I do have a copy of her new one The Year of the Flood however, so I might give her another go on your persuasive recommendation.


  9. Thomas September 28, 2009 / 9:59 am

    John: I probably just need to accept that not everyone will like her…I would hate to be responsible for someone reading something they don't like…I would never be trusted again. :)


  10. pagesofjulia July 18, 2011 / 11:16 am

    You have indeed talked me into keeping this book, Thomas! Thanks! I love your quoted snippets. Want more. When I shall get to it, I don't know…


  11. Thomas at My Porch July 20, 2011 / 10:27 am

    Julia: The good thing is you don't have to read the whole book at once. Each chapter can kind of stand on its own if you only have few minutes to read.


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