I’ve often heard it said that Margaret Atwood is one of the most varied writers alive today. Whilst, one minute, she’ll be working on dystopian scenes of slavery or all-consuming floods, the next, she’ll be considering the raw power of human nature, exploring our thought patterns as our differing emotions intersect with one another.
“The real question is: Does she care whether the human race survives or not? She doesn’t know. The dinosaurs didn’t survive and it wasn’t the end of the world. In her bleaker moments, of which, she realizes, this is one, she feels the human race has it coming. Nature will think up something else. Or not, as the case may be” – Life Before Man.
I picked up Life Before Man (1979) with these words in the forefront of my mind, and yet, I still find myself struggling with it. I’ve only read one Atwood novel before. The Heart Goes Last (2015) was an exceptional novel; Atwood bound together her apocalyptic visions to her insights into human relationships, producing a story that explored both the extreme, and the ordinary. Due to her skill as a writer, however, each value appeared to weigh as heavy as the other. It’s a thrilling read, even if, arguably, it does grow a little strange towards its end, and it left me with the desire to read as many more of Atwood’s books as I could possibly lay my hands on.
Life Before Man isn’t a book I’d ordinarily pick up off the shelf, and, admittedly, if it hadn’t been written by Atwood, I probably never would have. Generally, I enjoy more action in the books I read, and this novel appears to focus almost entirely on the human mind and the emotions within it. In retrospect, I should have realised that, regardless of author, this wouldn’t be a book that I would enjoy. It’s like my relationship with Austen; I absolutely adore her novels; they’re prolific, her writing style being so beautiful, yet, these aren’t novels that I enjoy reading. I much prefer Dickens’ works, for, although his writing is not as stylistic and awe-inspiring, his storylines keep me interested.
I’m sorry to profess that I haven’t finished reading Life Before Man; nor, I think, will I ever finish it. I can’t remember ever abandoning a book like this before, but I simply can’t get into the story. I don’t feel any emotions whatsoever towards any of the characters. There is no love, hate, or even curiosity. I don’t sympathise with them and I don’t particularly care what happens to them next. As a book-lover, I feel almost as though I have let myself down by abandoning the book like this, but I simply can’t deny it: I’m not enjoying it. I marched into town today and bought The Penelopiad (2005), Atwood’s take on The Odyssey, from Penelope’s point of view. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and one I’m genuinely interested in, unlike Life Before Man.
However, although I’ve said all of this, I don’t want to do Life Before Man a disservice; whilst I, personally, couldn’t enjoy the book, that doesn’t at all mean that it’s a bad read. In fact, I think it’s very clever. If I was reading it with a more academic lens, I would devour it without question, but, when I’m reading for pleasure, I want a book that leaves me desperate to know what happens next.
To be fair to the book, it does contain action; my biggest issue was that the majority of this precedes the actual narrative. Life Before Man begins in the wake of a recent suicide, the victim of which has, in Atwood’s words, “blew his head off with a shotgun”. It’s based on the narratives of his sexual partner, her husband, and her husband’s partner – it’s not exactly a nuclear family, yet these complex, intersecting personas provide Atwood with enough vehicles to express the power that the death has over very different people. These differences may be seen in their political views; whilst Nate watches the news with a fierce excitement, his wife has a much harsher view over the entire process:
“She’s no more interested in elections than she is in football games. Contests between men, both of them, in which she’s expected to be at best a cheerleader. The candidates, collections of grey dots, opposing each other on the front pages, snorting silent though not wordless challenges. She doesn’t care who wins, though Nate does; though Chris would have.” – Life Before Man.
I’ll leave you with the blurb of the book, along with the hope that you don’t take my word for it – I couldn’t get into this book over personal preference. I know others absolutely love this book, and I can understand why. It is interesting, just not in the right way for me to read right now, and maybe it gets more interesting as it goes on; I barely made it half way, so who am I to judge? Who knows, maybe one day, I’ll come back to it, but, for now, I have The Penelopiad to read.
“Elizabeth, monstrous yet pitiable; Nate, her husband, a patchwork man, gentle, disillusioned; Lesje, a young woman at the natural history museum, for whom dinosaurs are as important as men. A sexual triangle; three people in thrall to the tragicomedy we call love…” – Life Before Man, blurb.
You can read my finished review of The Penelopiad here.