Margaret Atwood’s latest short-story collection, Old Babes in the Wood, involves Twitter activism, sex trade and long, happy marriages


Rampant sex after the invention of birth-control, a rambunctious marriage flatlining into quiet widowhood, veteran feminists grappling Twitter cancellations, dialogues with amorphous alien species about jealousy and embarrassment, retired soldiers looking for a life without the stench of gunpowder, the confused censorships in modern-day publishing – such stories are sprinkled across Margaret Atwood’s latest, a short fiction collection, Old Babes in the Woods. A majority of it was written after the death of her husband, writer Graeme Gibson, in 2019. The collection is divided into three sections — the first, ‘Tig and Nell’ which recounts vignettes from the couple’s married life; the second, ‘My Evil Mother’, unrelated sci-fi stories; and the third, ‘Nell and Tig’, about Nell coping with Tig’s death.

The sci-fi disconnect comes out of nowhere but doesn’t hurt the otherwise realist collection. The first section is upbeat and wry, the third is anguished and irritable, so the middle section — about snails that inhabit human souls, STD plagues that force a reordering of human society, and angsty teens with witches for mothers — offers a welcome break.

The marriage story first.

Nell and Tig are an old couple who have been together for many decades. A small cast of surrounding characters flit in and out of their stories — siblings, parents, in-laws, neighbours, tenants — used as props to enhance or diminish emotions, creatively tweaked for the purpose of entertainment. The opening story, ‘First Aid’, narrates a day in the life of Nell and Tig attending a first-aid training session. Atwood flexes her ability to reveal character through dialogue here. The trainer, Mr Foote, is a no-nonsense paramedic who enraptures his entire classroom of city-dwellers (“bunch of know-nothing softies”) with a dark sense of humour, reminding them to keep their heads in emergencies even if a victim’s head has been amputated (“You can fix a lot of things, but not if there’s no head”) and how acting fast is crucial in first-aid. The story is a calm and collected introduction into the marriage of Nell and Tig, and how acts of love change with age.

The next story, however, ‘Two Scorched Men’, sags. It is Nell’s long and meandering recollection of stories narrated by her agitated landlord, John, and his easy-going friend, Francois, both war veterans. These contrasting personalities are pleasingly summarised with pithy paragraphs but that wit wants for the rest of the story. John’s grumpiness is mined for multiple punchlines but it gets tired after a while. The story suffers more with lengthy descriptions of the countryside backdrop, as well as pedantic discussions about Ireland’s role in World War II.

The final story of the section, ‘Morte de Smudgie’, is short and forgettable. It’s about Nell’s attempts to pen a poem-obituary for her cat Smudgie, with a tip of the hat to Alfred Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur.

Skip that mischievous middle section to ‘A Dusty Lunch’, and you find a soaring return to verve. One of the longest stories in the collection, it recounts the sunset years of Tig’s father, another war veteran, who’s seeing dead people in his bathroom and beginning to forget the names of his family members. Nell spends a long time speculating about his youth and war years after his death, foraging through heirloom crockery, hereditary jewels and secret correspondences, piecing together his personality with tucked-away memories. Bonus points for mentioning war correspondent Martha Gellhorn thrice, without mentioning her husband — Ernest Hemingway — once.

‘Widows’ is a short, punchy, epistolary story, addressed from Nell to a young well-wisher, with an abundance of self-deprecatory quips. Nell examines her own ostracisation from high-spirited society (“We’re bad luck, of course, widows. We know it. Awkward silences occur around us. People tiptoe. Should we be invited to dinner, or will we cast a pall? We certainly try not to cast palls: palls are unpleasant”) and muses the impact of language on reality.

The final two stories of the section, ‘Wooden Box’ and ‘Old Babes in the Wood’, complement each other, the former ending with the surprising discovery that Tig knew how to sew, the latter with a reminder he wrote to pack away the mosquito net after bug season. All the scraps of his daily routine are tiny explosions of nostalgia with nuclear potency. All the mundane responsibilities that befall a house of death — the things to be listed, packed, zipped, signed, donated, abandoned — provide a swooning crescendo to the collection.

Finally, the sci-fi stories can be read in the following order for thematic cohesion: ‘Dead Interview’ – a fictionalised conversation between George Orwell and Atwood — and ‘Airborne: A Symposium’ — about three retired academics deciding who to award a chair on a male-dominated university board — are united by a comedic take on how different generations criticise each other’s politics. Atwood dryly scolds Orwell for sexist remarks and he admits to the prejudice of his time. The old women of ‘Airborne’ discuss how young feminists are too online and eager to cancel each other (self-consciously sounding like their own grandparents and parents). However, what is eternal, apparently, is sexism directed at intellectual women.

‘Impatient Griselda’ is about an alien tasked with entertaining a group of humans rescued from plague-ravaged earth, and ‘Metempsychosis’ is about a snail who inhabits the soul of a bank’s customer service rep. Both stories wink jokes about social constructs and hurry on, invoking gender fluidity, sexual awkwardness and body dysmorphia. Of the remaining stories, two are grim, two bright, but all with enthralling imaginative worlds.


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