Yes, I am reviewing another Margaret Atwood but I feel that never-ending praise spools out of me every time I pick up one of her works. And although I have only given Life Before Man three stars it is still an incredibly important and fundamental piece of feminist literature. (However Atwood herself never claims her literature is feminist.)
Life Before Man follows three characters who also have their third-person narration. Nate, Elizabeth and Lesje. Elizabeth and Nate are married with children but not together. Lesje works with Elizabeth and becomes Nate’s girlfriend. Elizabeth had already found another man: Chris. But after Elizabeth cut him off he killed himself and now Elizabeth is trying to deal with grief.
That is the plot. It sounds dull and I guess for a plot it is. But I have always found Atwood gets her momentum from characters. Big events don’t need to happen when characters are so complex but also realistic.
Lesje is by far the most interesting character. She loves dinosaurs which is partly where the novel gets its title from. She much prefers the pre-historic to the present — a lot easier! She works in a museum her grandma used to take her to. And her name, Ukrainian. Atwood delves a little into her background and what it meant growing up.
Elizabeth is a little hard to decipher as a character. I wasn’t sure if her intentions were ever malicious (as some characters believed) or if she was misunderstood. Either way, I didn’t see her as the villain.
So then was Nate the villain? It would make sense for the male to be the villain but Nate was honestly just hopeless. He couldn’t make up his mind and he couldn’t understand women either. He just made everything worse!
The most emotion the reader will feel is during the two rape scenes. Lesje and Elizabeth. Atwood describes the scenes in quite some detail and then it is never discussed again. And this is in no way Atwood dismissing what happened to these women. She is showing how life is for women. It is hard to talk about rape. It is often hidden away by the victims because they believe it will get in the way of their life and others around them. So Lesje and Elizabeth go on as normal and the reader is left with this heavy burden.
This is by no way Atwood’s best novel. It is also heavy hitting. Nonetheless, it presents a very truthful picture of society. Maybe when you pick up this book, don’t read it as a work of fiction but as non-fiction. A memoir of many women.