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Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

There are many surprising characters in Old Babes in the Wood, including Smudgie, the deceased frozen cat ’wrapped in a majestic red robe and nestled amongst the peas and sausages’. Or the rather scary mother, whose neighbors never took up her offers to babysit being possibly ‘afraid they’d return to find their infant in a roasting pan with an apple in its mouth’. (Be reassured, she apparently used her evil powers only for good.) There’s a passing reference to the civil servants of Ottawa, who apparently have constant affairs ‘out of boredom’. And two women reminisce about a former acquaintance with bad teeth – ‘Wasn’t it like being kissed by a crumbling stone wall?’ Some of the stories in Old Babes in the Wood are interconnected, others stand alone. All are Margaret Atwood at her best.

Atwood has written over fifty books, including fiction, poetry and critical essays. She has received numerous awards, including the Booker Prize for The Testaments, published in 2019. She is best known for her writing, although she has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. This broad range of experience no doubt contributes to her ability to write about so many different topics from diverse perspectives.

Poignant depictions of sorrow and grief are threaded through the interconnected chapters featuring a couple named Tig and Nell, who were first introduced in an earlier book. Atwood’s long-term partner died several years ago, aged 85, and the effect of this loss appears to be reflected in her book. ‘Don’t go, don’t go,’ whispers Nell, as Tig is sleeping. Yet, inevitably, ‘Neither of them had any control over it, this gradual departure of his.’ In the chapter titled Widows, Atwood shares two letters. The unsent letter is raw and honest, the writer telling of ‘hanging out with a clutch of other widows’ who engender ‘awkward silences’ among their more fortunate friends. Their obsession with death scenes reminds me of how younger women frequently tell and re-tell birth stories to anyone who will listen. In stark contrast, in the letter that the widow eventually sends she is doing quite well, the offspring are fine, and the garden’s doing its thing. There’s a token offer to meet for lunch; life must be seen to go on.

Scenes from certain stories have lingered in my mind, Metempsychosis in particular. The dictionary defines this term as “the passing of the soul at death into another body, either human or animal” and it apparently stems from the works of Pythagoras and other theorists. I won’t give away much about this chapter, which I found both horrifying and fascinating. It features a creature that rarely stars in a book and covers the transition of its non-human soul ‘a translucent spiral of softly phosphorescent light’ … ‘into the body of a mid-level female customer service representative at one of the major banks’. (I’m still thinking about this chapter weeks later, especially when I’m gardening.)

Several years ago I attended a somewhat challenging discussion between Kim Hill and Atwood in Wellington, where Atwood’s razor-sharp observations and swift retorts were on full display. I see that public persona of hers reflected in the chapter about a band of gutsy older academic women. The women’s conversations are acerbic, moving and amusing. The depth and longevity of their friendship is evident, although even after all this time they sometimes struggle to understand each other’s humour or points of view.

There are numerous pithy descriptions in Old Babes in the Wood. Atwood uses two or three words to zero in on the essence of a truth or to conjure an entire scene in the reader’s mind: ‘suspicious ketchup’ lingers in the fridge (guilty!), an unfocused student is perceived as a ‘dancing wastrel’, and there’s a ‘blood-stained carrot’ on the opening page. A woman nearing seventy is – on second thoughts – considered by her friend to look ‘as good as possible’ rather than ‘as good as ever’.

The striking cover and endpapers are a nod to Cat’s Eye. Atwood’s unique writing style sparkles even in the acknowledgements, where she thanks and compliments her ‘demon copy editor who picks every nit, including those yet unhatched’ and a Canadian publishing associate for their ‘cheerfulness and overall splendour’. I’m slightly envious of Atwood’s posse who ‘keep [her] trundling through time and who remind [her] what day it is’.

I enjoyed every page of Old Babes in the Wood. It will live on the shelf of favourite books that I return to over time, knowing that a chapter (or sometimes only a paragraph) succinctly and sensitively describes feelings or situations I’m grappling with too. There’s comfort in knowing that others – even fictional others – have shared similar experiences.

Existing Atwood fans will appreciate these outstanding and thought-provoking stories. Old Babes in the Wood also deserves a wider readership, and may particularly appeal to readers who are interested in compassionate yet realistic depictions of aging and the loss of a life partner. Given the wide range of other topics covered, many other readers will appreciate the book too.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Penguin Random House


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