The Essential Margaret Atwood Reading List
Margaret Atwood poses with her award after she was made a Companion of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II following an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on October 25, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Aaron Chown - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
“If you’re put on a pedestal, you’re supposed to behave yourself like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.” ― Margaret Atwood in a 2013 interview with the Telegraph.
To celebrate Canada Book Day on April 23 – which is also World Book Day – we turn to Canada’s Queen of Letters, Margaret Atwood. Last year, the 80-year-old won her second Booker Prize for her novel The Testaments (The Blind Assassin won her her first Booker) and received the prestigious Order of the Companions of Honour from Queen Elizabeth II.
A recent documentary, Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word Is Power, was shot over much of Atwood’s 80th year and follows her around as she attends festivals, visits the Toronto set of The Handmaid’s Tale and prepares for the launch of The Testaments. The filmmakers also call it a love story, showing the deep and caring relationship between Atwood and her long-time partner author Graeme Gibson, who died last year at the age of 85. The couple had lived together since the early 1970s.
The film also explores Atwood’s major works, revealing the personal and societal factors that inform the celebrated storytelling of Canada’s most famous writer.
Atwood has always balked at being called a national treasure. “All these things set a standard of behaviour that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to,” she said in an interview in 2013 with The Telegraph. But her impact on the literary scene in the 20th century is legendary.
Here is a list of some of her essential works, along with companion books by other authors who explore similar compelling themes.
The Edible Woman
Published in 1969, Atwood’s debut tells the story of Marian McAlpin, a market researcher whose carefully crafted world begins to crumble after her perfect boyfriend proposes. Suddenly unable to eat, Marian’s reality begins to slip as she unconsciously rejects the consumer-oriented world around her and society’s prescribed ideas of womanhood. In its review, Kirkus said, “This is a first novel of genuine style applied to the most ordinary circumstances. . . disconcerting, faintly ominous and moving with the greatest of ease from the expected to the unexpected.”
In June, Variety reported that the rights to The Edible Woman have been picked up by Entertainment One.
Companion Read: The Wife’s Tale by Lori Lansens
In Lori Lansen’s 2010 novel, she explores the other end of a marriage and the other extreme of eating. On the eve of her 25th wedding anniversary, Mary Gooch is waiting for her husband, Jimmy, to come home. But Mary isn’t just waiting for Jimmy; she feels she is waiting for an undefinable thing and for her life to start. Since she can remember, she has been hungry for something she can’t name or define — food is her substitute. At more than 300 pounds, Mary has tried every diet but an irresistible hunger drives her to binge. When Jimmy doesn’t show up, Mary must undertake a journey to find him — and herself.
Atwood’s sixth novel, published in 1985, really doesn’t need an introduction. Its chilling portrayal of the Republic of Gilead — a totalitarian America in which fundamentalist Christians have killed the president and Congress and imposed a puritanical theocracy — has earned Atwood the moniker of the Prophet of Dystopia.
The book won the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the first Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987; it was also shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize. Along with the 1990 film and an opera adaptation, the recent series by Hulu is considered appointment TV.
The sequel novel The Testaments was the publishing event of this year, winning Atwood her second Booker Prize and breaking sales records in Canada and around the world.
Companion Read: The Power by Naomi Alderman
What if historical gender dynamics were suddenly flipped? In Alderman’s 2017 novel, teenage girls all over the world develop an electrostatic ability that allows them to shock and sometimes even control their victims. Females roam the countryside, maiming and killing, as Alderman writes, “because they can.”
It was one of Obama’s reads in the year it was published, and Atwood herself called it “electrifying.”
The Blind Assassin
This 2001 novel won Atwood her first Booker Prize. It begins with the mysterious death of a young woman named Laura Chase in 1945. Decades later, Laura’s sister, Iris, recounts her memories of their childhood and of the dramatic deaths that have punctuated their wealthy eccentric family’s history. The excellent narrative weaves together gothic suspense, romance and science fiction, with its intertwined chapters from the scandalous novel that made Laura famous. In its review, the New York Times praised its “virtuosic storytelling.”
Companion Read: Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990, shares many of the same metafictional concerns as The Blind Assassin but couches them in a literary mystery. In Possession, two contemporary academics uncover what seems like a secret love affair between two famous (sadly, fictional) Victorian poets. The two stories — the Victorian and the modern — are about relationships and cultural mores, but, as reflected through the poems, letters and documents, which tell significant aspects of the story, Possession is, at its heart, about the power of literature and the sheer force of words.
Atwood’s 1996 novel Alias Grace is based on a true-life murder mystery in 19th-century rural Canada. It follows Dr. Simon Jordan, an expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, who is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. The timid maid has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress.
The book earned Atwood her third of five Booker Prize nominations and was adapted by Sarah Polley for television. The Guardian said it showed Atwood “at the height of her powers.”
Companion Read: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Hannah Kent’s chilling debut novel is also inspired by a real-life murder mystery. It was inspired by the last public execution in Iceland in 1829. With there being no prisons in the small country, the condemned woman had been held for the winter before her execution at a farm where she’d lived as a young girl, guarded by the farmer’s wife and daughters. Burial Rites tells the story of that winter.
The books is reportedly being adapted for the big screen, with Jennifer Lawrence playing the condemned woman.
Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake, published in 2003, launches Atwood’s celebrated Maddaddam Trilogy, which also includes The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam. The books depict a North American landscape that is ravaged by ecological disaster and inhabited by a genetically modified race of quasi-humans, the Crakers. In an interview around the book’s publication, Atwood said that almost all the strange events and transformations in the book could happen — and that some had already happened through gene splicing and other forms of bioengineering.
A series adaptation of the trilogy is in the works at Paramount Television and Anonymous Content.
Companion Read: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
When the end of the world comes, it seems to start in Toronto, during a performance of King Lear. The early pages of Station Eleven, as a plague spreads through the city, are chilling and harrowing, but it’s what comes after the end that truly dazzles in Mandel’s novel (which is being made into a TV series.) The world after the plague is a place of mystery and recovery, where questions are answered and more are uncovered.