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10 best Margaret Atwood books to add to your reading list: from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘Alias Grace’

The Independent
The Independent
 2021-07-15

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Since her debut onto the literary scene in 1961 , Margaret Atwood has become one of the most internationally popular and lauded authors.

Following a series of poetry collections throughout the Sixties, the Canadian author published her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969 – an early example of the feminist themes threading through her stories and poems.

By 1976, there was such a buzz around the works of Atwood that one magazine announced her to be “Canada’s most gossiped-about writer”.

Owing to the success of the 2017 screen adaption of her dystopian, feminist novel, The Handmaid’s Tale , Atwood has reached an even wider audience in recent years.

Published in 1985, her arguably most famous tome was a finalist for the Booker Prize and its sequel The Testaments , published in 2019, was a joint winner of the coveted award – shared with Bernardine Evaristo .

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Winning numerous other awards over the years, her novels and poetry explore the intersecting themes of gender, politics, violence and climate change – often through a dystopian lens.

With an impressive 18 novels, 11 books of non-fiction, nine collections of short stories, eight children’s books and two graphic novels in her back catalogue, we’ve whittled it down to a select few of the best.

So whether you’re completely unfamiliar with Atwood or want to delve a bit deeper, these are the books to add your reading pile.

These best Margaret Atwood books are:

  • Best overall – ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ published by Vintage Publishing: £8.36, Bookshop.org
  • Best for romance and intrigue – ‘The Blind Assassin’ published by Little, Brown Book Group: £9.99, Waterstones.com
  • Best historical fiction – ‘Alias Grace’ published by Little, Brown Book Group: £9.29, Bookshop.org
  • Best for vintage Atwood – ‘The Edible Woman’ published by Virago: £9.17, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best myth reimagining – ‘The Penelopiad’ published by Canongate: £7.99, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best for experimental poetry – ‘Eating Fire’ published by Virago: £6.22, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best dystopian fiction – ‘The Testaments’ published by Vintage Publishing: £7.49, Waterstones.com
  • Best light-hearted read – ‘The Robber Bride’ published by Virago: £9.29, Bookshop.org
  • Best emotional read – ‘Cat’s Eye’ published by Virago: £8.19, Amazon.co.uk
  • Best poignant poetry collection – ‘Dearly’ published by HarperCollins: £12.82, Amazon.co.uk

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Vintage Publishing

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Best: Overall

A contemporary classic, it comes as no surprise that Atwood’s most enduring book has won her legions of fans, numerous awards and led to a hugely popular TV show. Set in the near dystopian future, a patriarchal, totalitarian and devout regime has overthrown the United States government and founded the Republic of Gilead.

Exploring the themes of subjugated women, the protagonist Offred is one of a group of “handmaids” who are assigned “commanders”, the ruling class of men, and forced to produce their children. Though a work of fiction, Atwood wrote the novel through stitching together real life events of oppression – giving the book its chilling effect and sense of foreboding.

Buy now £8.36, Bookshop.org

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Little, Brown Book Group

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Best: For romance and intrigue

Winner of the 2000 Man Booker prize, the judges rightfully praised Atwood’s 10th novel, The Blind Assassin, as “far reaching, dramatic and structurally superb”. Showing Atwood’s technical capabilities, the novel contains three stories in one, with the overarching narration by the elderly Iris Chase Griffen.

Looking back over her life, and in particular, her relationship with her sister Laura, the novel focuses on the events preceding Laura’s premature death and the literary status posthumously awarded for a scandalous novel . A story of family intrigue, betrayal and romance set against the background of 1930s and 1940s Canada, the tome concludes with a satisfying twist that demonstrates just how good a storyteller Atwood is.

Buy now £9.99, Waterstones.com

‘Alias Grace’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Little, Brown Book Group

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Best: Historical fiction

Another Booker-shortlisted novel that’s been successfully adapted for screen, Alias Grace is the fictionalisation of the notorious 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada. Two servants who worked in the household were convicted of the crime – the first, James McDermott was hanged and the other, 16-year-old Grace Marks, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In the novel, Atwood traces these factual events but invents the character of a doctor who arrives at the prison 15 years after Grace was first sentenced to research the case. Told through flashbacks, letters and snippets of reports from the trial, we learn that she has no memory of the murders, with the question of her guilt or innocence looming large throughout the book. Exploring similar themes to those of The Handmaid’s Tale (£8.36, Bookshop.org ), Grace’s subjugation as a young woman, female immigrant and member of the lower class are all padded out by Atwood.

Buy now £9.29, Bookshop.org

‘The Edible Woman’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Virago

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Best: For vintage Atwood

Go back to where it all started for the Canadian author with Atwood’s debut novel, The Edible Woman. Witty, searing and comical – the story follows the ego disintegration of Marian McAlprin who appears to have it all – that is until her engagement. Quitting her successful job at a research company for life as a stay-at-home mother, Marian soon realises marriage is not for her – leading to Atwood’s wry take on how all-consumed women can feel by marriage, society and men.

Marian begins to realise this very thing and starts to empathise with food and as her deterioration worsens, she finds herself unable to eat. Atwood’s self-professed “protofeminist” novel uses these clever food-related metaphors to narrate societal pressures placed on women.

Buy now £9.17, Amazon.co.uk

‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Canongate

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Best: Myth reimagining

First published in 2005 as part of a Canongate series where authors rewrite ancient myths, The Penelopiad tells the story of Homer’s Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. Left alone for 20 years while Odysseus fights in the Trojan war, Atwood explores Penelope’s perspective of the story, including her life in Hades and her relationship with her husband, parents and Helen of Troy – with interludes from the Greek chorus of 12 maids who are all executed in Homer’s original Odyssey . Atwood’s twist on the ancient story is witty and entertaining and showcases her poetic voice.

Buy now £7.99, Amazon.co.uk

‘Eating Fire’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Virago

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Best : For experimental poetry

Spanning four decades of poetry, Eating Fire features three of Atwood’s key collections: Poems 1965-1975 , Poems 1976-1986 and Morning in the Burned House . Merging Atwood’s influences and observances of the Canadian wilderness, bus trips, postcards, natural forces, old age, death, cynicism and more, the collection is far-reaching, ambitious and a must-read for fans of the author. The decades of poetry show the evolution of her writing, style and form while exploring similar themes to those of her novels – of being a woman, the environment, fairy tales and myths.

Buy now £6.22, Amazon.co.uk

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Vintage Publishing

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Best: Dystopian fiction

Surprising and delighting fans with a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale , The Testaments is set years after the former novel’s events. Told from three different perspectives – that of two girls with polar opposite lived experiences of the now-rotting Republic of Gilead, and the notorious and cruel Aunt Lydia from the original story – readers are now put in the seat of the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Answering the questions left 33 years earlier at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, the sequel reveals what happened to Offred and Gilead while retaining all of its dystopian terror and chilling warnings of authoritarianism.

Buy now £7.49, Waterstones.com

‘The Robber Bride’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Virago

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Best: Light-hearted read

Inspired by a Brothers Grimm tale, Atwood’s The Robber’s Bride is the rollicking story of an amoral, deceptive and conniving “robber bride” villainess, Zeina. We open with three women meeting for lunch – all of which have previously fallen victim to Zeina and celebrate that she’s now dead. Except, they spot her alive and well in the diner.

Alternating between the past and present, Atwood tells the story of how Zeina stole each woman’s man and the various aliases she develops while doing so. An ironic, fast-paced and humorous read, it’s left up to you to decide whether Zeina’s a self-empowered woman or a traitor to the sisterhood.

Buy now £9.29, Bookshop.org

‘Cat's Eye’ by Margaret Atwood, published by Virago

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Best: Emotional read

The childhood and teenage years of the fictional, controversial painter Elaine Risley are told vividly by Margaret Atwood in her 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye. Elaine, a middle-aged and successful woman, reminisces on a trip back to Toronto for an art show about a trio of girls who introduced her into the conflict-driven politics of childhood, friendship, longing and betrayal.

Unfolding in mid-20th-century Canada, from the Second World War to the late Eighties – the story threads through numerous culturally and historically significant moments of the period, including waves of feminism and modern art movements. Atwood’s deep dive into female friendships shows just how much formative relationships can shape entire lives.

Buy now £8.19, Amazon.co.uk

‘Dearly’ by Margaret Atwood, published by HarperCollins

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Best: Poignant poetry collection

Her first poetry collection in more than 10 years, Dearly, was published last year and dedicated to Atwood’s partner, Graeme Gibson, who died in 2019 after a battle with dementia. The titlar poem, “Dearly” , as well as the “Invisible Man” are both about his absence, but the book has a wider reach, too – a standout being Atwood addressing the climate crisis in “Oh Children”. More personal than most of Atwood’s writing, the collection considers ageing, memory, loss, feminism and more.

Buy now £12.82, Amazon.co.uk

The verdict: Margaret Atwood books

Just as relevant as it was in the 1980s when Atwood wrote it, The Handmaid’s Tale well deserves its place as a contemporary classic. The success of the TV show and the acclaimed sequel, The Testaments , has cemented Atwood as a master of the speculative and dystopian novel.

If historical fiction is your thing, Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin vividly capture their respective periods and your imagination while Cat’s Eye sees Atwood at her emotional best.

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