"It is sometime in the future. Or in a future. Luckily for writers, there are many futures, and few can be explicitly disproven. Let's be vague about exactly when". (from the short story "Freeforall")
Roughly a full decade has passed since the publication of Margaret Atwood's last short story collection, Stone Mattress, thus the Canadian author's devotees received the news of the recently released new compilation of little tales, Old Babes in the Wood, an assemblage of stories touching upon everything that can be deemed human by one of the most distinguished living writers in a global scale. The collection features 15 crisp, totally self-contained, narratives and some of them have been previously appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Atwood adopts a threefold division of the book's content with the first and the last part, titled "Tig & Nell" and "Nell & Tig" respectively, sharing a complementary relationship as together they form the story of a marriage from the initial steps all the way to the bitter end that inevitably comes when the one half of the couple passes away leaving the other with memories and a hefty burden of grief. Gabino Iglesias writes: "These stories, which taken together feel like a mosaic novella more than literary bookends for a collection, offer a deep, heartfelt, engrossing look at the minutiae of life". Atwood has a keen eye for the detail and her heartfelt descriptions stir a wave of emotions to the reader who witnesses the temporality of human relationships through a poignant, yet astute series of 7 short stories.
The midsection of the book, that is the second part, consists of 8 stories as diverse in terms of themes, narrative voice, and format as they could possibly be. It begins with the story titled "My Evil Mother", a probing examination on a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship in a house located in a Toronto neighborhood and spans several decades as the daughter, who is also the narrator, gives her account of the precarious balance in her home that subsequently led to many serious quarrels with her mother, a self-proclaimed witch. Atwood delves deep into the young girl's mental state and mindset and finally provides a superbly outlined picture answering to the eternal question: Why is that many kids take after their parents as they are growing old? The Canadian author's sensitivity is transparent and deeply imprinted in the text that transcends any attempt at a genre categorization as it is in parts a coming-of-age story, a family drama, a humorous tale jeering at the superstitions that still have a firm hold over certain people even in our times.
Right next, we find the best and most intriguing section in the whole collection, always according to my own personal taste, which comes under the paradoxical titled "The Dead Interview". Atwood engages in small-talk with one of her major influences that shaped her career as a writer, the late George Orwell (pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair) who speaks from the other side in an interaction that is equally moving and fascinating, even for those who are not major fans of Orwell's oeuvre. This imaginary interview is so well-written, with Atwood showcasing her unique authorial skills as well as her boldness, daring to speak with the voice of a deceased writing legend, capturing the essence of his work. There are several references to the most iconic of Orwell's works, for example his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, while the discussion moves further with the English novelist disclosing the motivation that fueled his writing. At one point he says to Atwood: "It was unfairness that drove me on the most (...) More than anything the injustices impelled me to write. Savage indignation, inflamed by the betrayal of common human decencies. The betrayal of ordinary humanity".
The interlude intervening between the first and the final part of this exquisite collection features a genre-bending mix of pithy narratives including the story of a snail trapped into the body of a human ("Metempsychosis: Or the Journey of the Soul"), a metaphor for the modern man who perennially feels out of place and longs for the sense of belonging, another one narrated by a murdered woman, Hypatia of Alexandria ("Death by Clamshall"), a parable that falls too close to home in the post-Covid era ("Freeforall") and several more that will keep you turning the pages, turning Old Babes in the Wood an one-sitting read. However, those who were introduced to Atwood's body of work through the successful television series adaptation of her bestselling The Handmaid's Tale, may feel a bit unfamiliar as the author's versatility and singular writing style shines brighter than ever in this collection and the final result is nothing like the aforementioned titles. The hardcore Atwood fans will enjoy every single word in this compilation of fifteen little gems and are bound to acknowledge her limitless capability to surprise even the most seasoned of her readers despite traversing the late stages in her illustrious career.