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Moral Disorder and other stories by Margaret Atwood

I’m enjoying working my way through Margaret Atwood’s fiction, most recently, Moral Disorder and other stories, a collection of short stories from 2006.

The collection tells stories from different periods of the main character’s life. She is un-named until about three-quarters of the way through the book, when ‘Nell’ appears. I have assumed that the earlier stories are also about Nell, although this is unconfirmed.

The first story, The Bad News, introduces the main character and her partner, Tig, in their old age. They have developed patterns of behaviour throughout their many years together, one of which is that Tig, who gets up first in the morning and watches the news, is not to tell Nell any bad news until after she has eaten her breakfast.

The Art of Cooking and Serving is a story of Nell as a little girl willingly working in the family home and helping out her mother with her little sister until one day as a teenager she rebels, telling her mother, “She’s not my baby. I didn’t have her. You did.”

The stories feel so true that they could be autobiographical. The Headless Horseman tells of Nell making a costume for Halloween which alternately fascinates and terrifies her much younger sister and My Last Duchess of a class in school where Robert Browning’s poem is being studied. This story was one of my favourites. I didn’t know the poem, so enjoyed looking it up, but I also loved that Nell was learning life lessons, recognising the end of her latest romantic relationship and even more importantly, learning to recognise and value her teachers and the hidden values they were trying to impart to Nell and her fellow students.

The Other Place shows Nell as a young woman, moving often, changing jobs and boyfriends, and not seeing her parents, who disapprove of her lifestyle. Monopoly tells of the early days of Nell’s relationship with Tig, a separated father of two and Nell’s own relationship with Tig’s ex-wife. The title story, Moral Disorder, was another of my favourites and superficially tells of Nell and Tig learning to farm and feeling guilty that chickens they have grown (and named) taste delicious when roasted. This story reminded me of growing up on a farm, as whenever we had a lamb in the backyard Dad called the lamb Chop-Chop so there would be no illusions about why the lamb was in our yard.

White Horse has Nell as an adult, again caring for her younger sister. The Entities shows Nell and Tig moving house, then The Labrador Fiasco and The Boys at the Lab has Nell reunited with and caring for her parents in their old age.

The more I read by Margaret Atwood, the more I appreciate her stories and her wonderfully clear writing.

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