REVIEW: Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

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Nov 7, 2006, 7:23:45 PM11/7/06
TITLE: Moral Disorder
AUTHOR: Margaret Atwood
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury (Oct. 2006)
ISBN: 9780747581628 PRICE: $39.95 (hardback) 505pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea (
Moral Disorder is a strange title for a book of short stories which read like
chapters in an autobiography. The photograph on the cover, to, is
disconcerting. It shows two views of a young woman standing rather stiffly in
front of the camera. She is dressed in out-dated 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 she describes 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

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.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2006

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages:

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