Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews

The Tent

Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury (March 2006) 155 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 8225 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! This book was not at all what I expected. I can't remember what I had read about it, but I was looking forward to enjoying another collection of Margaret Atwood's short stories, like Wilderness Tips or Bluebeard's Egg. Instead, this is a collection of brief flights of imagination that are, as the media release says, "smart and entertaining fictional essays... chilling and witty, prescient and personal, delectable and tart."

There is no doubt of Margaret Atwood's inventiveness and skill, and individually many of these pieces are very funny. However, this is a book to be taken in small doses, because the cumulative effect is brittle, joyless, and decidedly uncomfortable.

One piece, "Voice," describes the writer's impression that her artistic voice is attached to her like "the translucent greenish membrane," which balloons out of "a frog in full trill"; and Atwood's accompanying drawing shows it as plant-like tendrils on which a small heart blooms. It is an interesting conceit, but this writer's voice threatens to take over her life. It becomes her public persona--it is the voice people want, not her. Margaret Atwood's voice is certainly strong and distinctive throughout this book, but is it her only voice? Other books would suggest not. And even if it is, does she not have a choice about that? Perhaps the attractions of being wanted for that public voice outweigh the disadvantages. As the writer in this particular piece notes, she and her voice sit in a hotel suite, rather than just a hotel room, "because it's still nothing but the best for us."

It is a pity that the title piece of this book, "The Tent," is placed so near the end, because only after I had read it did the framework for all the pieces in the book become clear; and only then, too, did the words and shapes on the distinctive red and black cover ("designed by Atwood and Wood") have some meaning. The tent of this short story is a fragile shelter, a place to which "you" retreat from the threatening demons of a hostile world. As a sort of magical protective ritual, you must write constantly on the paper walls of your tent in order to protect your loved ones and to keep the demons at bay. The parallel with what any writer does when she retreats into her paper world and erects barriers of words is clear, and that most of the pieces in this book deal with various ills is also clear, but by using the impersonal "you," Atwood includes us in this story. Perhaps if I had read this piece first, I would have found the whole book less disturbing. But it is more likely that it was Atwood's intention to disturb the reader. Certainly the world she describes in this book is our world, and the demons are our demons.

Margaret Atwood has always been concerned with the demons which threaten our world, but her early warning system is never polemic--she never harangues us. Instead, she makes imaginative extrapolations from things which she sees already happening and suggests what the outcome might be if we do nothing to stop it. So, The Handmaid's Tale was like an early warning to women of the dangers of letting men control technological development. And Oryx and Crake was her most recent vision of the possible future of our brave new world, its bleak outlook well tempered with ironic humor.

There is still plenty of this humor in The Tent, but the overall mood is darker and less optimistic. The final two stories in the book appear to offer a lifeline--a baby survives a cataclysmic disaster in a treetop; a bulb is planted in the dirt from which new life may come--but this lifeline is so fragile and comes so late that by the time it is thrown, the world may seem to be so drowned in mud that you will already have given up hope and accepted your fate. That, however, is not Margaret Atwood's way.

Many of the pieces in The Tent have been published before--in small magazines, in journals, as limited editions, and as part of fund raising schemes for disaster relief groups or wildlife funds. Collected together in a book like this, they are likely to find a larger, more diverse readership. The Tent may not be what many readers expect or want of Margaret Atwood's "voice," and it may not change the world, but at least she is doing what the increasingly desperate leaders of "Take Charge" command: "Well," they say, as imminent disaster seems unavoidable, "do the best you can." And Margaret Atwood's best is always worth reading.


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