An ode to Margaret Atwood - because it's her birthday this week and heck, I want to celebrate a woman whom I consider one of the greatest living authors writing in the English language. Writer, feminist, thinker, environmentalist, humanist, mother, wife - the world would be the poorer without her works.
I can't remember the exact sequence, but I read a whole series of Atwood-ian novels over the span of a few years. The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Lady Oracle, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood. They were wonderful gems, studded with unusual literary nuggets and discoveries. Atwood is a guru of unexpected imagery - take, for example, this brief poem, which tells an entire story in a mere four lines that other authors might otherwise have taken a novel to tell:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
The best of her works are investigations of human relationships. She writes meditations about love, or the lack of, covering the pitfalls, the joy and the terrible beauty of that unquantifiable emotion.
Atwood's characters are studies in complexity. Anyone who has ever read The Robber Bride will never forget Zenia. What does she want? Why is she so vindictive? What motivates her as a character? Who is she? Is she real, or a figment of anguished female imagination? As Atwood has said of Zenia before in an interview: "She is the professional liar, and what else do fiction writers do but create lies that other people will believe?"
Among my friends, I have found that few men actually enjoy reading Atwood. They seem to have relegated her novels to "literary chick lit", perhaps an oxymoron all of its own. Not to denigrate chick lit, because it has its own merits, but the point of chick lit is light reading - something to tempt the reader who wants a break from "worthy" books, or a nightcap before they drift off to sleep. Many men just don't seem to get her.
I think the reason I adore Atwood, apart from her stupendously great writing, is because she is so clearly, piercingly, incisively intelligent. She has an intense personality - by that I mean she appears to think, reason and feel deeply about all her actions - and offers no apologies for who she is. Anyone who has ever read an interview with her, or follows her on Twitter (yes, she is 73 and an avid tweeter), will immediately realise that she does not tolerate fools. Ever.
In terms of her writing, she always says something beautiful and refreshing about the world and society - whether in her fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Consider this line, which anyone who has ever been in the grip of a passionate love affair will be able to relate to: "I would like to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only. I would like to be that unnoticed and that necessary." As they say, still waters.
Then there's this observation about the callousness of youth, from The Blind Assassin - for which she won a much-deserved Booker:
"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too - leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back."
It reminds me of this wonderful line from The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway describes Tom and Daisy as "careless people...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made".
This year, I've been working on writing a post-apocalyptic novel. As a fledgling, unpublished, first-time novelist bumbling my way clumsily through the paper mines, I'm aware that I owe a huge debt to all the other women writers who have forged the way before me, especially in the field of speculative fiction, traditionally considered the domain of men. Atwood was one of the first to break through with The Handmaid's Tale, nearly three decades ago now.
So here's to Ms Atwood, on your 73rd birthday. May there be many more years of insightful prose and poetry to come, in your garden walled with glass. A toast! And many happy returns!