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Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood: Wit and humanity in the darkest of places

Fifteen stories show Atwood’s range as a writer, her ingenuity, the ease with which she switches mode

Old Babes in the Wood
Author: Margaret Atwood
ISBN-13: 9781784744854
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: £22

“Since they knew what sort of creature I was, they also knew – indeed they trusted – that I would someday relate their lives for them. Why did they want this? Why does anyone?” Margaret Atwood’s new short story collection Old Babes in the Woods gives us a portrait of the writer as an observer, record taker, memory keeper, immortaliser. There is the sense in many of the stories of an author looking back on her career, interrogating the meaning of her work. This is mostly done through the perspective a recurring character, Nell, a writer who sifts through other people’s lives and histories in order to try to make sense of their existence, which is to say existence generally, the strange fact of our life here on earth.

Like Atwood, Nell is a sage voice on the moments big and small that accumulate over time to form a life. The quote above is taken from the book’s second story, Two Scorched Men, which recounts the friendship of two French men with very different temperaments. Like Atwood, Nell sets down personal fortunes and misfortunes, while placing them in the context of a savage world: “At that time I was a collector of the many excuses people had come up with for butchering one another.” Like Atwood, she is, throughout the collection, charting the trajectory of civilisation over decades, centuries, millenniums, the highs and lows, the depressingly circular nature of things, past horrors repeating in modern times, the present day defined succinctly as “the puritanical moment we are passing through”.

The 15 stories show Atwood’s range as a writer, her ingenuity, the ease with which she switches from literary to science fiction. Split into three parts, the dystopian or sci-fi stories are grouped in the middle of the collection and feature, among other eccentricities, a snail trapped in the wrong body, an interview with a deceased George Orwell, an impassioned monologue from Hypatia of Alexandria, an alien reciting fairytales and a pandemic take on The Handmaid’s Tale. Thematically we are firmly in Atwood territory: autocracy, misogyny, environmental free fall. Apocalypse now.

These stories have a whimsical quality, which is perhaps an issue of form. Dystopian fiction is arguably better suited to a novel, or a long story such as George Saunders’s recent Liberation Day, where there is space to explain the rules, the world, the premise. Atwood’s surrealist stories can feel occasionally, as with the Orwell interview, a bit meta or self-indulgent for the humour to land, but on the whole her trademark wit is as sharp as ever.


In The Evil Mother, an adult daughter looks back on her childhood with a mother who said she was a witch: “Avenging a toad. Pointing at a tree. Who could handle that kind of thing, in a mother?” In Bad Teeth, narrator Lynne highlights the perks of ageing: “You can make six kinds of a fool of yourself because you’re a fool just for being old. You’re off the hook for almost everything.” The superlative Widows showcases a cabal of elderly feminists, whose droll take on life is a tonic: “Though once she was actually dead, you’d be amazed how smooth her face was. All those pain and worry lines, just gone. Sort of instant Botox.”

The heart of the collection belongs to Nell, and her husband, Tig, who feature in multiple stories. Their long marriage is movingly depicted, from the engaging opening story First Aid – “Minor emergencies were her domain, but not major ones. Major ones were Tig’s” – to the decline of Tig into old age – “He went to bed before Nell could. She had to prowl around, turning lights off, turning heat down, checking the doors. Tig used to do those things” – to the overwhelming sense of loss that Nell feels after he’s gone: “It’s like being a student again: the same disorganization and fecklessness and sudden bursts of intention, the same formless anxiety, the same barebones meals.”

This last story, which gives the collection its name, first appeared in the New Yorker in 2021. A poignant dedication to the author’s late partner Graeme Gibson in the acknowledgments of the book cements the feeling of lived experience in these stories, the way ordinary notes, clothes, even condiments are suddenly imbued with new and terrifying meaning: “Now here’s the jam in the refrigerator, the last jar ever. The last half-jar. Should she eat it or not eat it? Either one seems like a violation ... What does one ever do with these cryptic messages from the dead?” As with the best writing about ageing and loss – see also: Hilma Wolitzer’s The Great Escape or Éilis Ní Dhuibhne’s beautifully crafted memoir Twelve Thousand Days – Atwood puts a shape to the suffering, finding humanity in the darkest of places. Still illuminating so many decades later, an old, wise babe guiding us through the woods.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts