Margaret Atwood's 'Old Babes in the Wood' tackles what it means to be human
Margaret Atwood, without a doubt one of the greatest living writers, is best known for her incredibly successful and award-winning novels The Handmaid's Tale and, more recently, The Testaments.
However, she is also an extraordinary short story writer — and Old Babes in the Wood, her first collection in almost a decade, is a dazzling mixture of stories that explore what it means to be human while also showcasing Atwood's gifted imagination and great sense of humor.
Old Babes in the Wood contains 15 stories, some of which have previously appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. The collection is divided into three parts. The first and last, titled "Tig & Nell" and "Nell & Tig," revolve around a married couple and look, more or less, at their entire lives — what they've done and felt, the people that left a mark on them, their thoughts. 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. The middle part, titled "My Evil Mother," is perhaps the crowning jewel in this collection and brings together eight unique tales that vary wildly in terms of tone, voice, theme, and format. From imagined interviews and stories told by aliens to the circle of life and a snail trapped in the body of a woman, these tales show Atwood's characteristic insight and intellect while also putting on full display her ability to make us laugh, her chronicler's eye for detail, and her unparalleled imagination.
There are no throwaway stories in this collection, but several demand their time in the spotlight. "Morte de Smudgie," about the death of a cat, is a perfect portrait of the unique kind of grief that follows the loss of a beloved pet. "My Evil Mother" follows a mother-daughter relationship through the years and shows how, and why, many people eventually become just like their parents. In "The Dead Interview," Atwood "interviews" author George Orwell through a medium in a trance. Part tribute and part celebratory deconstruction of Orwell's oeuvre and persona, this one becomes unexpectedly funny and shows just how on top of everything Atwood is as she tries to explain things like the internet, getting "cancelled," anti-vaxxers, and even the January 6 coup attempt to Orwell. "Impatient Griselda" explores, through the translated voice of an alien that looks like an octopus and doesn't have all the words it needs to communicate perfectly, estrangement and miscommunication. "Bad Teeth" is a fun vignette about friendship that follows two old friends as one of them insists on asking why the other had an affair with a man with bad teeth, but the affair never happened.
In "Death by Clamshell," Hypatia of Alexandria narrates her own murder and offers her thoughts on how she's morphed into different things to different groups of people in the centuries since her death. And she does so with great energy and a good sense of humor about it: "I try to look on the bright side: I did not have to endure the indignities of extreme old age." In "Metempsychosis: or, The Journey of the Soul," the narrator is a snail whose soul "jumped directly from snail to human" after it got sprayed with a homemade, environmentally friendly pesticide. The snail's desire to return to its previous form, and its understandable shock at human behavior and practices, quickly morph into a truly eye-opening, heartfelt read about yearning and feeling out of place.
Old Babes in the Wood is touching, smart, funny, and unique in equal measure. Atwood, who's always had her finger on the pulse of modern society, tackles everything from love and the afterlife to the importance of language and the pandemic (fans of The Handmaid's Tale will love "Freeforall," which is a return to themes of motherhood with a political angle and plenty of social commentary). Throughout all these stories, Atwood's usual wit is always present, and she offers plenty of memorable characters and lines. "That is what it is to be human, I suppose: to question the terms of existence," says the snail trapped inside a woman in "Metempsychosis." That line echoes throughout the collection.
It's been almost a decade since Atwood's previous short story collection, Stone Mattress, was published. Not surprisingly, the wait was worth it. Old Babes in the Wood showcases Atwood's imagination and her perennial obsession with getting to the core of what makes us human while dishing out plenty of entertainment and eye-opening revelations along the way. At this point, Atwood has nothing left to prove. But she writes like she wants the world to notice her work — and that fire makes it easy to react every time she publishes something: We know we must sit down, read, and be in awe of her talent.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.