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Old Babes in the Wood: Stories


Old Babes in the Wood: Stories

Margaret Atwood has produced eight volumes of short fiction, but none since 2014. So the arrival of OLD BABES IN THE WOOD is sure to generate excitement among her many avid readers. In this case, they won’t be disappointed, as the collection features 15 smart, witty and occasionally fanciful tales that highlight her versatility and talent.

At the emotional core of the book are seven stories divided between two sections at the beginning and end that focus on an upscale Toronto couple, Nell and Tig. In the opener, “First Aid,” Nell is in a first-aid class and is reflecting on an assortment of minor accidents in their lives together. She concludes that, for all their brushes with injury or even mortality, “obliviousness had served them well.”

"[T]he collection features 15 smart, witty and occasionally fanciful tales that highlight [Atwood's] versatility and talent.... [The best stories] in OLD BABES IN THE WOOD offer well-crafted examples of the work of a deeply gifted writer."

After “Two Scorched Men,” a vivid reminiscence of the colorful, cantankerous World War II veterans --- one French, the other Irish --- Tig and Nell meet during a summer interlude in Provence, the final story in this first section, “Morte de Smudgie,” describes a mock epic that Nell composes on the death of the family cat. But in its final paragraphs, Atwood offers a glimpse of Nell a quarter century later, after Tig has died. Even as she crafted her poem, Nell “must already have known on some level that he was bound to set sail first, leaving her stranded in the harsh frost, in the waste land, in the cold moonlight.”

This tonal shift blossoms in the volume’s four concluding stories. All of them, to some degree, are moving reflections on loss and grief from a writer who lost her partner of more than 45 years, Graeme Gibson, in 2019.

“A Dusty Lunch” tells the story of Tig’s father, nicknamed the “Jolly Old Brigadier” (or “J.O.B.”), who served with distinction in the Canadian Army during World War II. After Tig’s death, Nell discovers a cache of documents, including poems written by the J.O.B., that hint at a possible affair with the famous war correspondent and wife of Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn. “There’s always something duplicitous about it, this spying on the dead,” she concludes. It’s an observation that applies as much to her passage through her late father-in-law’s papers as it does to her encounters with some of the humble objects Tig left behind at the family’s lakeside cottage, the heart of the story “Wooden Box.”

“Widows” is a frank, moving reflection in the form of a letter to a friend on the experience of mourning, in which Nell describes how time has “ceased to be linear” and that in this “refolded time Tig still exists, as much as he ever did.” The story’s coda only serves to underscore how difficult it can be to communicate the experience of grief. And in the titular story, Atwood describes Nell’s experience of inhabiting the cottage, home to so many memories of her life with Tig, in his absence. Her attempt to look at the stars from the dock produces “only grief and more grief,” as she and her sister “wend their way through time as if through a labyrinth.”

The remaining stories in OLD BABES IN THE WOOD lack a similar thematic unity, but they’re no less impressive. In “My Evil Mother,” the 15-year-old narrator portrays a parent who claims to possess supernatural powers, using some of them, she says, to turn the girl’s father, who abandoned the family, into a garden gnome. “The Dead Interview” is the transcript of Atwood’s encounter with George Orwell, one that alludes to the January 6th insurrection, the internet and cancel culture. “Satire in extreme times is risky,” notes the author of ANIMAL FARM and 1984. “Choose any excess, think you’re wildly exaggerating, and it’s most likely to have been true.” In “Airborne,” Atwood offers a lively conversation among a trio of aging female academics, survivors of the “schismatic feminist feuds of the 1970s.”

“Freeforall” and “Metempsychosis” display Atwood’s gift for fanciful tales. The former imagines a plague of sexually transmitted diseases “sometime in the future” that requires arranged marriages between uninfected individuals to preserve the human race. The latter is narrated by a “soul” that finds itself transported from a snail into the “body of a mid-level female customer service representative at one of the major banks.” In a similar vein is “Impatient Griselda,” which describes aliens who arrive bringing an “intergalactic-crises aid package” amid a plague. But at just seven pages with an embedded fable, it’s more of a sketch than a story.

Margaret Atwood has written successfully in every conceivable literary form. Though she’s not as well-known for her short stories as her fellow Canadian writer Alice Munro, at their best, the ones in OLD BABES IN THE WOOD offer well-crafted examples of the work of a deeply gifted writer.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 31, 2023

Old Babes in the Wood: Stories
by Margaret Atwood

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0593468414
  • ISBN-13: 9780593468418