If you want some powerful, thought-provoking and original words, Margaret Atwood’s work is the right place to look. She’s written everything from terrifyingly plausible dystopian futures to refreshingly feminist studies of famous women to sharp contemporary novels that explore women’s lives today. For anyone seeking feminist fiction, Atwood is my first recommendation.
Here are four books that serve as a good introduction to her incredibly diverse works. Two of them are science fiction novels which present grim futures that are all too easy to imagine.
“Oryx and Crake” (2003) is the first novel in Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy. It flashes back and forth almost constantly between the past and present as it slowly unravels exactly how the world fell apart. In the present, Snowman, who may be the last human alive on Earth, lives surrounded by a new human race — the green-eyed and strangely docile Children of Crake — as he mourns his lost love Oryx. In the past, Jimmy, the man who Snowman used to be, watches as corporations slowly devour his world and genetic engineering twists nature into unrecognizable shapes. It’s a fascinating and chilling exploration of the consequences of corporate greed, filled with strange creations that could and probably will give you nightmares. With immeasurably flawed, fascinating characters, the dystopia often feels uncomfortably familiar. (You may never look at fast food the same way again.) Dystopian novels tend to revert to familiar tropes, but “Oryx and Crake” is surprising at every turn.
Of course, there’s the work that Atwood is probably most famous for: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (1985). Set in a radically conservative religious republic where women have been stripped of all rights and the protagonist is used as a broodmare, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is every woman’s worst nightmare. Honestly, it’s the kind of book that everyone should read at least once in their life. The beginning can be challenging, as its narrator is passive and broken, but every sentence is worth the effort. The novel becomes more and more compelling as it goes on and the plot picks up steam. Two years after reading it, I’m still thinking about it.
“The Blind Assassin” (2000), set mostly in the 1930s and ’40s in Toronto, has a permanent place in my top ten favorite books of all time. The blind assassin tells three different stories: the tumultuous relationship between the sisters, Iris and Laura Chase; the doomed love affair that features prominently in Laura’s novel, published after her suicide; and the pulp science fiction story told by one of the lovers in Laura’s novel to another. It’s a book that contains stories within stories, like an endless series of Russian nesting dolls. Each one manages to be satisfying, both emotionally and intellectually. “The Blind Assassin” truly has the best of both worlds, appealing to both the heart and the mind, pushing every literary button there is.
Finally, “Alias Grace” (1996) tells the story of Grace Marks, a notorious nineteenth-century murderess. If you’re fascinated by unreliable narrators, unsolvable murder mysteries and insane asylums, this Atwood book might be the right one for you. “Alias Grace” captures insanity in many forms, the elusive nature of truth and, like all of Atwood’s novels, the struggle of being a woman in any time period.