Old Babes in the Woods

Old Babes in the Woods


Margaret Atwood is celebrated as one of the most gifted storytellers in the world. These stories explore the full warp and weft of experience, from two best friends disagreeing about their shared past, to the right way to stop someone from choking; from a daughter determining if her mother really is a witch, to what to do with inherited relics such as World War II parade swords.

They feature beloved cats, a confused snail, Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell, philosopher-astronomer-mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, a cabal of elderly female academics, and an alien tasked with retelling human fairy tales. At the heart of the collection is a stunning sequence that follows a married couple as they travel the road together, the moments big and small that make up a long life of love - and what comes after.

The glorious range of Atwood's creativity and humanity is on full beam in these tales, which by turns delight, illuminate and quietly devastate.

Our Review

I was lucky enough to see Margaret Atwood being interviewed in person about Old Babes in the Wood so my opinions may have been slightly altered by this.

I am an avid fan of Atwood's as I have mentioned numerous times in my reviews. I adore her short story collections, despite not being a fan of this form of writing generally, mostly because I always want them to be more than they are. I think Atwood has the ability to write short stories which contain everything the reader needs. 

This collection feels more personal because of themes of ageing and grief woven throughout the stories. Indeed, in the talk in London Atwood acknowleged as much. She said that as a teenager she wrote a story about someone really old (40) but it wasn't good. "Now I can write old." 

The central thread through the story is the story of Nell and Tig. An ordinary couple, ageing together. 

In one of the early stories in the collection the couple are participating in a first aid course together. It is this story where we begin to see some of Atwood's deductions of the ageing process. 

"What hasn't been said is that the majority of the passengers - the guests - the clientele - will not be young, to put it mildly. Some of them will be older than Nell and Tig. Truly ancient. Such people can be expected to topple over at any minute, and then it will be ceritificates to the rescue." 

In the story Bad Teeth Atwood further elaborates on the theme of old age.

"Clock up enough years, she's in the habit of saying, and you can dance on a table provided you can still clamber up there. You can have sex with the mailman and nobody will care. You can flush away your push-up bras - not literally, you wouldn't want others involved, asking how the bra got into the toilet - but you get the idea. You don't have to hold in your stomach anymore. You can make six kinds of a fool of yourself because you're a fool just for being old. You're off the hook for almost everything." 

The above quote is one thing I would disagree with Atwood on, even at almost 83 I can't imagine anyone taking her for a fool. Shes so sharp and witty it is unbelievable. 

Atwood's own grief is hinted at throughout the book, it is obvious in little areas sprinkled in the stories

"I used to think that having a good memory was a blessing, but I'm no longer so sure. Maybe forgetting is the blessing." 

Also, more obviously: 

"My heart is broken, Nell thinks. But in our family we don't say 'My heart is broken.'  We say, 'Are there any cookies?' One must keep busy. One must distract oneself. But why? What for? For whom?"

One of my favourite stories from the collection was 'My Evil Mother.' I had purchased it in e-book form earlier in the year and was already familiar with it. The scenes of parental conflict felt familiar, even if it was not my experience. I loved the witchcraft element to it and the eventual realisation of the mother's motives. 

Whilst in London the interview inevitably addressed the real life contrasts with The Handmaid's Tale in recent times. This is addressed in part within this collection.

"Satire in extreme times is risky. Choose any excess, think you're wildly exaggerating, and it's most likely to have been true." 

Another nod to the political situation for women is found in the story 'Death by Clamshell.' 

"Many in your world have the idea that there has been progress since my day, that people have become more humane, that attrocities were life back then but have diminished in your era, though I don't know anyone who has been paying attention can hold such a view." 

The story 'Freeforall' was an excellent story and was possibly the only one in the collection which I felt would have benefitted from expansion. 

One story I particularly found thrilling was where she communicates with the spirit of George Orwell. In the interview Atwood says he is "particularly pertinant right now." 

In this collection, and in the related live interview, Atwood has once again proved her relevence...as if there could ever be any doubt.


Our Final Rating...

Our Rating

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