Old Babes in the Wood is Margaret Atwood’s ninth collection of short fiction, marking her return to the genre since Stone Mattress was published in 2014. While Atwood is perhaps most well-known for her poetry and her novels — especially 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the greatest science fiction novels of the 20th century — she is also a master of short fiction. Whether you are a long-time admirer of Atwood’s work or a newcomer seeking an introduction to her writing, this new collection holds something for you.
Old Babes in the Wood is divided into three parts: “Tig and Nell”, “My Evil Mother”, and “Nell and Tig”. The first and last sections — seven stories in total — revolve around married couple Tig and Nell. The first three stories about them are meditations on the mundanities of life, painting a portrait of Nell and Tig’s marriage over the decades. The last four are about Nell adjusting to life after Tig has passed. These stories feel the most personal and it’s not difficult to see why — Atwood’s longtime partner Graeme Gibson, whom she partially dedicates the collection to, died in 2019.
In “Widows”, one of the collection’s more heart-wrenching stories, Nell pens a letter to a friend about widowhood, grieving, and the warping of memory that comes after a loved one’s death. It’s a particularly intimate story that grants us a glimpse into the inner world of a grieving woman. “Have I gone into the dark tunnel, dressed in mourning black with gloves and a veil, and come out the other end, all cheery and wearing bright colours and loaded for bear? No. Because it’s not a tunnel. There isn’t any other end.”
In the final story about Nell and Tig, we witness Nell confront her grief head-on as she sifts through Tig’s belongings in their cabin. But even before Tig’s death, themes of grief and loss suffuse stories about the two. In “Two Scorched Men”, Nell reminisces about two now-deceased friends, while in “Morte de Smudge”, she grieves the loss of her and Tig’s beloved cat by rewriting Alfred Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur — a “deeply frivolous thing for her to do.”
While the bookend sections of the collection have a clear narrative thread running between them, the middle section is a mixed bag of tone, genre, and length. Departing from the heavier tone of the Tig and Nell stories, these middle tales serve as a sort of balm for the more serious tales about death and loss.
Atwood’s literary versatility is on full display in this section, encompassing a wide range of genres, from science fiction to speculative fiction and historical fantasy. “My Evil Mother” follows a mother-daughter relationship that grows increasingly fraught over the years as the mother adamantly insists she’s a witch. This theme of storytelling and the blurred lines between truth and fiction resurface in “Bad Teeth”. A woman, Csilla, claims her friend Lynne had an affair with a man with bad teeth in the 1960s, only to confess later she fabricated the tale. Both tales explore the power of narrative in shaping our perceptions of reality.
There are some surprisingly playful stories in this section, considering how thematically heavy the rest of the collection is. In “The Dead Interview”, Atwood interviews George Orwell through a spirit medium and attempts to explain what contemporary concepts like the internet, anti-vaxxers, and cancel culture are. Atwood resurrects another historical figure, Hypatia of Alexandria, in “Death by Clamshell”. She narrates the tragic circumstances of her death at the hands of a mob of religious zealots.
In “Metempsychosis: or, The Journey of the Soul”, a snail has an existential crisis after suddenly finding its consciousness transplanted into a human woman. Through the snail woman’s perspective, we witness an outsider’s view of human behaviours and culture as the snail woman yearns for a life she can never return to. What starts out as a charming tale about feeling out-of-place in one’s body takes a sharply existential turn near the end: “What am I? Why must I suffer? The ultimate puzzle. That is what it is to be human, I suppose: to question the terms of existence.”
“Impatient Griselda” re-tells the story of Griselda from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, but with a twist: the tale is narrated by an alien to a group of humans that the alien is trying to entertain. The humans are under quarantine because of a plague, making this one of several stories that feature or mention a pandemic of some kind. It makes these stories more topical than they would be under other circumstances. The other notable story that does this is “Freeforalls”, a post-apocalyptic tale evocative of A Handmaid’s Tale. It features a sexually transmitted disease that has swept through humanity, forcing humans to resort to arranged marriages for reproductive purposes.
While the stories in the “My Evil Mother” section of Old Babes in the Wood vary in their impact, the stories about Nell and Tig are some of her best. Atwood’s prose is as sharp as ever, brimming with her characteristic blend of biting humour, surgical attention to detail, and incisive observations about the minutiae of life. Her talent shines when writing about growing older, navigating grief, and exploring the vastness of the human experience in all its richness and complexity. Atwood has a knack for cutting to the heart of things and forging an emotional connection with her readers, leaving an impact that lasts long after the final page has been turned.