|Jan/Feb 2007 Book Reviews|
Bloomsbury. 2006. 505 pp.
Moral Disorder is a strange title for a book of short stories which read like chapters in an autobiography. The photograph on the cover, too, is disconcerting. It shows two views of a young woman standing rather stiffly in front of the camera. She is dressed in outdated clothes and in one picture she wears white stockings and shoes; in the other, black. Aspects of a personality perhaps? Chapter two of the book, "The Art of Cooking and Serving," suggests as much: "One can transform an untidy, inexperienced girl into a well-groomed, professional servant if one is patient and kind and fair," says the old-fashioned household-management guide which is the favourite book of the young girl in this story. The girl, who is just entering puberty, describes her rather isolated life helping her sick mother to care for her new little sister, and her first serious challenge to her mother's authority. Her transformation as a result of this sudden burst of independence is the reverse of that in the household management book. She could be Margaret Atwood remembering a significant episode in her life, as could the narrators of the stories in the rest of the book, but it is dangerous to make assumptions.
This danger is demonstrated in the very first chapter of the book. "The Bad News" begins with a modern woman describing a quite ordinary early-morning routine, but the story makes a sudden and disorientating jump back into ancient Rome. Not much changes in the narrative except the setting and a few details, and the narrator seems to be the same woman. Life, too, seems much the same—"gossip and rumour," dining, entertaining—and the woman is still able to complain that "You never know if the news is true until it pounces."
Margaret Atwood is never predictable, and in this book she seems to delight in teasing the reader by suggesting that these stories are autobiographical. There is a photograph at the front of the book which shows a white horse and three sheep outside a barn. Did she take the photograph? And is the horse the white horse owned by the narrator of a later story, and the sheep the three ewes of another chapter? It is tantalizing, but it matters not at all. These stories are all pure Atwood; and they are all Atwood in her very best word-weaving, story-telling form. Her wit and humanity make each of them a perceptive, vivid glimpse of its narrator's life. The dilemmas of a woman's relationship with a married man; the struggle for identity; the complexities of sibling love, rivalry and duty; the changing and delicate balance which exists between children and their aging parents: Atwood draws us into each situation with skill and sensitivity.
Moral Disorder is Atwood telling stories just as she did in Wilderness Tips and Bluebeard's Egg. The grim mood which pervaded The Tent is gone, and love, humour and a more hopeful mood prevail. This is mature Atwood writing at her very best, and it is a delight to read.