Margaret Atwood is arguably one of most popular authors of all time. The Canadian writer has been penning novels, short stories, and activist essays for over four decades, and some of the most prolific works of the century have come straight from her.
She’s been known to write all kinds of work – from impassioned speeches about world issues, to nonfiction.
But in the last few years, its perhaps her fiction – specifically, her dystopian fiction – which has really captured the attention of readers around the world. As a result, the darker side of the world she captures has arguably become the work that she’s most well known for.
Speaking about her tendency to focus on perhaps more frightening aspects of reality, Atwood has said, “The darkness is really out there. It’s not something that’s
in my head, just. It’s in my work because it’s in the world.”
But which of her dark and intruging novels show Atwood at her best?
The best Margaret Atwood books
The Handmaid’s Tale
The piece dominating all of the headlines at the moment is her 1990 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. 77-year-old Atwood penned the dark dystopian thriller just under 30 years ago, but it’s only recently found a spot in the limelight as a result of the 2-part drama series, which recently aired on Channel 4.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, the TV adaption of The Handmaid’s Tale began on Hulu over in America, but was quickly picked up by Channel 4 so that UK fans had a chance to watch the series that was gathering so many rare reviews.
(Elisabeth Moss in the TV adaption of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale)
The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred in the new, dystopian society of Gilead. In what was once known as America, ‘handmaid’s’ attempt to adapt to their new surroundings after the rebel regime took over. Now, the world as everyone knew it is changed, following a nationwide outbreak of infertility in women. The still-fertile women, known as ‘handmaids’, serve as baby-makers for rich, powerful men and their infertile wives – and it’s considered to be their life’s purpose to carry a healthy baby to term.
The first season has been such a success, that Hulu has now commissioned a second series. Atwood’s book finished where the first season ended, so it means that the follow-up will not be based on her original work. But given that fans were desparate to see what happened to Offred and Ofglen after the book ended, it’s likely that a second season is good news!
So what about the rest of Atwood’s impressive back catalogue?
Another book adapted for the small screen, Atwoood’s harrowing novel was masterfully adapted by Netflix. Alias Grace is based on the historical tale of two Irish servants – Grace Marks and James McDermott, who in 1843 were both convicted of the double homicide of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montomgery – who live in the house they served. But while Marks was sentenced to life in prison, McDermott hung for the crimes. But to this day, Marks’ actual involvement in the murders has been dubious, with questions around whether she actually commited any actual crime or was simply a bystander.
Sounds interesting, right? The book will be retold through six Netflix episodes, and will star Anna Paquin, Sarah Gadon, and Zachary Levi.
It’ll also feature Atwood’s fictional addition of Simon Jordan, a doctor who, after analysing Marks, slowly begins to fall in love with her. It’s been adapted by Sarah Polley, who, of Marks, said, “as captured by Margaret Atwood”, is, “the most complex, riveting character I have ever read”.
We can’t wait to see this…
The Heart Goes Last
The Heart Goes Last is another dystopian offering from the author, but it’s one of her most recent books, published in 2015. In the near future, we’re introduced to Stan and Charmaine, who are living out of their car as America undergoes one of the biggest economic crises ever seen. Crime rules the streets, and citizens are forced to pick out of bins to feed themselves – but nothing is being done, mainly because the authorities no longer exist.
Desperate for a way out, Stan and Charmaine decide to enrol in a project which gives them a lovely house in a safe, guarded community. The catch? They can live in the house for a month, but they’ll have to spend each alternate month in a prison cell.
The idea is that the prison get inmates to do all the necessary jobs that need doing, and it means that society is contained in a way it wasn’t before – to keep people safe, of course.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing of Atwood’s novels, given the fact that the poverty experienced really isn’t so far away from the lives of lots of people.
Oryx and Crake
One of Atwood’s most otherworldy novels, this 2003 book centres on a young boy called Snowman, who finds himself living with a bunch of strange, post-apocalyptic creates called Crakers.
But the story goes on to explain that Snowman was previously a boy named Jimmy. Jimmy befriends a young boy called Crake, and the pair become close. But things become tense when the both take very separate paths, ending up with Crake creating a Viagra-like super pill that ends up threatening the fate of the world.
Sound strange to you? It is – but it’s worth the read.
The Edible Woman
The Edible Woman is Margaret Atwood’s very first work of fiction, and ended up solidifying her as a respected and accomplished member of the literary scene. Written in 1969, it’s about the story of a woman called Marian.
Marian lives a respectable life in Toronto with a job, a housemate and dependable boyfriend, Peter. But it all gets a little strange when she find herself attracted to a friend, Duncan – shortly after she accepts a marriage proposal from Peter. So far, so normal.
But things get aptly bizarre, when Marian begins to feel squashed by her relationship with Peter. After a few discussions about the deaths of animals, she becomes unable to eat meat, giving the food human feelings, and so disgusted by what she sees as cannibalism. Her inability to eat transfers to all foods…resulting in a very strange ending… Read it to believe it.
Atwood’s second book is one of her most respected, given how much it raised awareness about issues of conservation and preservation, which weren’t generally discussed at the time.
Based on the story of an unnamed protagonist, it’s all about her journey towards finding her father. However, this is Margaret Atwood, so of course it’s not that simple. The voice of the novel eventually ends up driven into a feeling of madness. It’s intriguing, puzzling, and heartbreaking – all at the same time…
The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin was widely revered when it first came out in 2000, and it’s still one of Atwood’s most popular books to date. Iris and her sister Laura are the two protagonists of the novel. The book begins with Laura’s suicide, and goes on to witness Iris, talking about hers and her sister’s life as an old lady, growing up in a small town in Southern Ontario without a mother.
The book changes tact here, revealing not one but two novels-within-a-novel. The reader is lead to believe the novels are written by Laura, but a sad and tragic turn of fate eventually reveals the truth… Although the praise for this offering of Atwood’s was mixed, with some at the time calling it “overlong”, the book won widespread praise within literary circles, and even won the Booker Prize in the year it was released.
So what are you waiting for – grab yourself an Atwood classic, stat.