Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood review – tales of love and age

Dedicated to her late partner, these reflections on marriage, mortality and many-tentacled aliens show Atwood’s mastery of the short form

Most of the characters in Margaret Atwood’s latest book are old, or heading that way, and their stories unwrap what TS Eliot called the gifts reserved for age. There are chips and fragments of lives, full of sass and sadness. The book is in three parts: a miscellaneous collection of stories is sandwiched between sections called Tig and Nell and Nell and Tig. The Nell and Tig stories tell the tale of a long and loving marriage, and what comes after. (The book is dedicated to Atwood’s partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019.)

When we meet Nell and Tig they are on a first aid course: they need a certificate to give talks on a cruise ship. The guests on the cruise ship, they reflect, will be “older than Nell and Tig. Truly ancient. Such people can be expected to topple over at any minute, and then it will be certificates to the rescue.” Not that Nell and Tig expect to be of any use in such a crisis. The story – told, as we discover, in long retrospect – is really about their companionable, conspiratorial laughter at the foibles of their instructor; and their reflections on the danger that we live with and, when we’re young, ignore.

Many of these stories dwell wanly on how love flourishes, as time goes on, amid the most crosspatch and cussed of human interactions. Two Scorched Men describes friends of Nell and Tig, both dead by the time the story is being narrated: a “short, roundish, genial Frenchman” and a “lanky, explosive Irishman” who says of Atwood’s home city Toronto: “Stuff Toronto, timid prudish provincial mud puddle.”

Bad Teeth is about two female writers, Csilla and Lynne. Csilla, writing a memoir of the 1960s, claims Lynne had an affair with a man with terrible teeth. She made it up for her book, she eventually admits. “You’re dead to me is what the younger generation might say,” Lynne thinks. “But Csilla is far from dead to her. Csilla is in fact part of her.” The protagonists of these stories regard the strident moral certainties and bruising cancellations of the “younger gen” with amusement and alarm. They are too old to bear grudges.

Atwood is a literary writer who entirely sees the point of science fiction, and her speculative instincts are on show in several of the stories here. The cheery jeu d’esprit Impatient Griselda, for instance, is a monologue by a many-tentacled alien creature, employed by the entertainment department of an “intergalactic crises aid-package”, telling a collection of quarantined humans a fairy story. The tone is Joyce Grenfell by way of Futurama:

One day a rich person of high status, who was a Sir and a thing called a Duke, came riding by on a – came riding by, on a – If you have enough legs you don’t have to do this riding by, but Sir had only two legs, like the rest of you […] the Duke scooped her up onto his ... I’m sorry, we don’t have a word for that so the translation device is no help. Onto his snack. Why are you all laughing? What do you think snacks do before they become snacks?

Another post-apocalyptic story touches on Handmaid’s Tale territory: a virus that makes Covid look like a runny nose has roared through humanity, and the uninfected are made to breed through arranged marriages while, confined to lawless “Freeforalls”, the rest of the population gets on with living and loving and (mostly) dying. And in Metempsychosis there’s a delightful description of a snail’s dismay as it finds its soul transferred into the body of a human being.

A worldview open to science fiction is no less resonant, and piercingly so, in the ostensibly realist stories. In the final section Nell is in widowhood, “now that Tig” – the phrase truncated because its conclusion is not sayable. Yet Tig is still around her everywhere. “There are portals in space-time, opening and closing like little frog mouths. Things disappear into them, just vanish; but then they might appear again without warning. Things and people, here and gone and then maybe here. You can’t predict it.”

Those little frog mouths are everywhere. In A Dusty Lunch Nell goes through the papers of Tig’s father, the Jolly Old Brigadier. Before his death, the JOB had complained that people appeared in his apartment – “sometimes people he knows, sometimes not, sometimes alive, sometimes not” – but would not talk to him. His papers hint at wartime trauma, at a romance that may or may not have happened. But in the end it’s irrecoverable.

The theme of the collection is right there in that first story, First Aid: “‘We aren’t going to make it out of here alive,’ Tig used to say as a joke, although it wasn’t one.”

• Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood is published by Penguin (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Sam Leith

The GuardianTramp

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