Margaret Atwood is one of those authors that I thoroughly enjoy, and have amassed a vast collection of, and yet have somehow managed never to actually read many of their books. (Others in this category include Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Henry James, Enid Bagnold…the list could go on) I’ve read The Blind Assassin, of course; hasn’t everyone? This is one book I NEVER fail to see on a charity shop’s shelves. And also The Robber Bridegroom, which was very good, and The Edible Woman, which I loved when I was 17, and was what started me off on collecting Atwood’s books. I have almost all of them, in handsome first edition hardcovers that I take much delight in sniffing out for pennies in charity shops (I like to kid myself that my collection will be worth something someday), but I just never feel particularly compelled to read them.
It’s odd, this lack of compulsion, because when I am actually reading one of her books, I greatly enjoy myself and love all of the strange and wonderful characters and scenarios she concocts. However, when I close the pages my abiding memory appears to become one of intellectualness and feminist criticism and hard work. The first two are true enough but the latter certainly isn’t; as clever and intellectual as Margaret Atwood’s prose is, she’s not abstract or obtuse or difficult in any way to enjoy. This is what makes her stand out, I think, in a sea of too clever for words ‘intellectual’ modern writers who write impossibly impenetrable books that are deep and meaningful and are blatant prize winning attempts. Rather like films that have either 1) the Holocaust or 2) Meryl Streep in them. Also, she is not a one trick pony; she has written a huge amount of excellent books covering a variety of genres, and unusually, her early books are just as good as her later ones. I think because she is such an intelligent novelist, I shy away from picking up her books because I know I’ll have to properly engage and think and get out my literature student hat all over again, and as much as I like doing those things, most of the time I get scared that I won’t understand and so don’t bother even trying. I feel much the same about A S Byatt, and Iris Murdoch, who I am yet to read precisely because I am afraid of her. This is irrational and I have now promised myself I won’t let this happen again; as I enjoyed Lady Oracle so much, I can’t wait to read more Atwood; The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye…they’re all waiting for me on the TBR shelves!
Lady Oracle is about Joan Foster, who, when the book opens, has just faked her own death and is living in a dingy apartment in a suburb of Rome, where she plans to start a new life. She then goes on to relate the woeful tale of how she has ended up here, and how nothing in her past has ever lived up to her dreams. We go right back to Joan’s childhood, when she was a fat, unattractive and largely friendless child, who was a bitter disappointment to her thin, beautiful, and cruel mother, who let Joan know how much she repulsed her. Her father, a distant, shadowy figure, was an anaesthetist who worked as a sort of legitimate contract killer during the war; this juxtaposition between taking and restoring life in his past and present lives makes him an enigma to Joan, and they have little to say to one another. Her mother; neurotic, nagging, jealous and possessive, rules the home, and there is little life or joy to find within the house where the sofas are covered in plastic to prevent damage. Joan escapes to her larger than life aunt’s house on a regular basis, where she is taken to a Spiritualist church and encouraged to see dead people and do ‘automatic’ writing through a spirit guide. This feeds Joan’s already overactive and romanticised imagination, and after an illness that sees her lose all her excess weight and become thin, as well as the death of her aunt, who leaves her some money, she sheds her old life and hops on a plane to England, changing her name to that of her beloved aunt in the process.
In England she is rescued by a Knight in Shining Armour; an eccentric emigre Polish Count by the name of Paul. She swiftly moves in with him and is swept into his world of romance and adventure, and it is through his double identity as Mavis Quilp, author of Nurse books written to feed the feminine need for escapism, that Joan takes on yet another fantasy, secret existence, as a writer of Costume Gothics. Her daydreams of being swept away by a handsome cad and danced with into the moonlight are recreated in the trashy historical fiction that funds her new life, and yet Joan is not happy, because she doesn’t love Paul. After a walk in Hyde Park one day, she bumps into a fellow Canadian, political activist Arthur, who is an undemonstrative cold fish only interested in the latest fashionable crisis affecting humanity. Joan falls in love with him, despite his indifference to her, and they marry, with ne’er a romantic demonstration from Arthur, who knows nothing of Joan’s former life as a fat child, nor that she writes trashy novels. In fact, Joan doesn’t tell him hardly anything about herself, but Arthur is far too interested in himself and his campaigns to notice that Joan is even there. Starved of romance and affection, Joan can’t write, and to help her find her way back into a creative mindsight, she tries ‘automatic’ writing again. To her surprise she finds that when she falls into a trance she manages to create absurd and fantastical poems; she sends these to a publisher who raves about Joan as a new feminist voice, and publishes the book under the title ‘Lady Oracle’. The book is a runaway success and Joan finds herself held up as a modern icon. However Joan’s passionate nature is not satisfied and she finds herself embroiled in another affair, which again leads to disappointment, followed by blackmail, and a desperate, miserable Joan, seeing no way out of the mess her life has begun, decides to fake her death, and resurrect herself in Italy to start all over again. However, as with everything in Joan’s life, it doesn’t go as she planned, and it isn’t long before the past catches up with her…
I thought this was fantastic. Atwood is such a witty writer, and Joan is a marvellous, hopeless character who drifts through life, making it up as she goes along, living several different identities while really inhabiting a fantasy world, unable to cope with her actual existence. The novel is all about split identities, duplicitious characters, fantasy lives and escapism. Everyone in Joan’s life is not the person they at first appear to be, and everyone is hiding, masking, secreting, both from themselves and from those around them. Joan has never actually worked out who she is, and as a consequence, she has never really been loved for herself. She is easily consumed by other people; first by her mother, then Paul, then Arthur, then the ‘Royal Porcupine’, her latest lover, and she splits parts of herself off and becomes the person each of these people want her to be, with no true happiness or success in any of these relationships. She is presented to the world as ‘Lady Oracle’; wise, all seeing, all knowing; but really, she is none of these things, and her shambolic, messy life is a product of a woman living on daydreams, and searching for a romantic fantasy that can never come true. Joan is a symbol of modern womanhood; trying to be everything to everyone, and losing her own sense of self in the process. The front cover illustration of my edition shows a Russian doll, which expresses the essential message of the book excellently; we are all of us composed of several different persons, and part of life’s struggle is working out how to fit everything we are and everything we want to be into one body, one life, one person, one identity. Will Joan manage to work this out now she has started afresh, reborn from the waters of Lake Ontario? I don’t know…and I wish Margaret Atwood had written a sequel so that I could find out!