This is a collection of subtly related short stories by a true lady of letters. Margaret Atwood has always been able to look at all points of view without shifting attention away from the inside of the main character's head. In this series she focuses, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, on an aging woman. Atwood subtly demonstrates how aging brings maturity of thought along with mental chaos and confusion. Through the memories and the present moments with Nell and her partner, Tig, we see a woman whose mind was once sharp lapsing into a dreamlike state, the better to deal with the world outside, for, as the first chapter begins, "They just killed the leader of the interim government council."
As Nell is growing older - "We live a long time," her mother told her - we see her life in flashbacks. The "moral disorder" of her early life starts with the birth of her sister, Lizzie, who seems so special at first: "Because of her sensitivity, or perhaps because my mother was so worn down, my sister was allowed to get away with things I would never have been allowed to do, or so I felt." Later it becomes apparent that Lizzie is mentally ill, that she does unforgivable things yet has to be forgiven, and that Nell will have to take a role in her care even as an adult.
The young woman Nell becomes increasingly xenophobic, often changing address and rarely opening up to anyone - "for a long time, I wandered aimlessly"
- until she meets Oona, an aspiring writer, large and splashy with entrepreneurial zeal and a domineering personality. Oona takes Nell on as an editor/amanuensis and pulls her into her strained marital stand-off with Tig. In further "moral disorder," Tig falls for Nell, then Nell realizes she has fallen for him, and they begin to conduct a clandestine affair. Yet there is a suspicion that Oona is still orchestrating events, even after Tig and Nell are married. When Oona requires a more suitable house, Nell helps her find one, and the house becomes a repository not just for Oona's departed spirit when she dies on the kitchen floor, but for other "entities."
All the while, Nell and Tig are trying to survive as homesteaders in rural Canada, suffering the woes of inexperience. Atwood enumerates all the different animals that come and go and makes even their deaths humorous, in a wry and eerie way. Lizzie continues to visit - mainly coming around when there
are a lot of bad things happening, and almost never when things are calm. Nell and Tig have two sons, and "Nell washed a lot of towels."
Dealing with her aging mother, watching her look at her photographs for the last time as she sinks into blindness, trying to tease her into remembering pieces of her past, Nell seems to be pre-visioning her own future. Though there is nothing overtly supernatural in this collection, the author has the art of weaving the teller into the tale and blending the characters into one another's lives so that the end result is something magical.
Margaret Atwood's books are always worth reading and if this is your first one, you will soon be hunting up more. Luckily she is a prolific writer, so you have a long satisfying trail ahead.