Monday, 29 June 2009

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood

Moral Disorder is sort of halfway between a short story collection and a novel. It is eleven different stories about Nell, the central character, at various key points throughout her life. Starting with the first story set in the present day, we move through her childhood, adolescence, her struggles with relationships in adulthood and finally on to the death of her parents in the final two stories.

Each story deals with a specific event, or period of time in Nell's life. Some are narrated by herself, and some in the third person. So in that sense they are definitely short stories. However, each story does illuminate her family life and with each story, we as readers do feel we know a little bit more about her background, and her life. By the end, the stories do all add up to a coherent whole. I suppose the best way of phrasing it would be as a character study of an ordinary woman, and how the choices she makes affect her life.

The stories themselves make up a kind of montage of a woman describing and looking back on her life and working out what events led her to the place she is at now, but also emphasising that the past is gone and the present is all that matters. Nell herself says;

"We can’t really travel to the past, no matter how we try. If we do it’s as tourists.”

Tourists visit places to learn about events that happened in the past, and that is what Nell does in these stories. You can't change the past and you can't make it have a different outcome just by visiting. But you can learn about yourself. Again, a quote from Nell tells all about the effect the past can have on our future, or at least how she feels about the past, and the present.

"What if I missed a turn somewhere—missed my own future?"

We learn about Nell through her descriptions of her interactions with her family, her memory of a particular poem she studied, and other such ordinary events. I think that is what is so brilliant about these stories. They describe ordinary events in a woman's life, but manage to impart so much significance to them, and do it in an entertaining way.

Just as a side note, found it interesting that the last story involves Nell going through photographs of events a people in the past to try and jog her ailing mother's memory about these things. And this is essentially what this book is, random memories from a woman's life. An album!

This book is more than just a collection of snapshots though. The first story situates Nell as elderly, but still in full possession of her faculties. She does however spend a lot of time in this first story not thinking about the passing of time and eventually takes herself out of her life and imagines herself somewhere else where she is not getting old. By the last story, we realise that she has witnessed at close hand the decline and death of her elderly parents so in terms of the past affecting the present, the book has come full circle.

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