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Sharon R. Wilson's 1993 book, Margaret Atwood's Fairy-Tale Sexual Politics, is an extremely well-researched and comprehensive examination of Atwood's engagement as a writer, visual artist, and feminist with the genre of the fairy tale. Wilson has now edited a collection of ten essays—to which she has contributed two essays and a brief introduction—and it definitely delivers what Wilson promises by making a strong and distinctive contribution to the critical understanding of Atwood's poetry and fiction by focusing on "her work of the eighties and nineties" and on "feminist, postcolonial, postmodern, and formal issues in Atwood's art" (xii). Contributing scholars are from Canada, Europe, and the US, and each of them has already published or is working on a book about Atwood.
All of the essays provide close readings of texts by Atwood that deserve sustained critical attention, among them novels like Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin; short pieces collected in Murder in the Dark and Good Bones and Simple Murders; and the poetry of Interlunar and Morning in the Burned House. The collection makes a collective argument for considering all of these texts as "'assassinations' of traditional genres, plots, narrative voices, structure, techniques, and reader expectations" (xiii). The strength these essays have in common is to provide intertextual analysis that is both well-documented and illuminating. Relevant intertexts range from folklore, Baudelaire's poetry, and the gothic to Atwood's own lectures, earlier works, and unpublished papers. A few of the essays remain somewhat introductory, but most are interpretively shrewd, and all are informative, useful, and clear.
While metanarrative is the focus of all of the essays, some investigate Atwood's use of specific formal strategies: inversion in Murder in the Dark (in Reingard M. Nischik's contribution); the opposition of light and darkness in Interlunar (Shannon Hengen); the [End Page 771] representation of quilting as a narrative pattern in Alias Grace (Wilson); and in Karen F. Stein's two distinct contributions, narrative embedding as both disguise and revelation in The Blind Assassin and Atwood's increasing reliance on first-person narratives in her novels.
While also providing close readings, the other essays take on larger questions. Canada's culture and national identity are explored in different ways by Mary K. Kirtz, Carol L. Beran, and Carol Ann Howells. My quibble here is that, while these essays show how Atwood's ongoing concern with Canada and its literature has consistently identified the "conquered" and "conquering" dynamics shaping its national identity, to me their discussion is primarily about narrating the nation with attention to otherness in a number of contexts (for example, the wilderness and the city) rather than foregrounding postcolonial issues as announced in the introduction.
Another important site of inquiry is Atwood's shifting but continuous reliance on the figure of the trickster in her writing. Wilson in her first essay, "Fiction Flashes: Genre and Intertexts in Good Bones," and Kathryn Van Spackeren in "Humanizing the Fox: Atwood's Poetic Tricksters and Morning in the Burned House" are centrally concerned with tricksters. Wilson argues that "despite [the survival theme's] subversions, in Good Bones Atwood's tricksters are often ironic culture heroes in tales that, together, are about saving, transforming, global human culture" (27). Spanckeren eloquently shows how, as a consequence of Atwood's father's death and her own aging, the trickster figure in her 1995 book of poetry has gained emotional depth, with less concern on tricks as a way to survive as such and more with an artful acknowledgment of emotional commitment and vulnerability.
The overall picture of Atwood's literary production during the 1980s and 1990s that emerges from this collection is, as it should be, exceptionally rich. The depth of her engagement with questions of survival concerning women, oppressed peoples, and their stories is cleverly foregrounded by the essays' critical limning of her "textual assassinations" in the name of social empowerment and justice. As some of the essays suggest, the metanarrative...