Book Review: Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood


Bodily HarmBodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spent several weeks in France during the summer of 2003. I arrived at the start of a massive European heat wave that would continue weeks after I left in August, killing nearly 15,000 in France alone.

One Friday afternoon in late July I trained from Gaillac to Carcassonne, in the heart of the Languedoc. I’d reserved an inexpensive hotel recommended by my Lonely Planet Guide.

The hotel was a disaster. Dim, dreary, sweltering, grimy. I had to pay cash for my night’s stay before seeing the room. Despairing, homesick, I dumped my small pack on the bed and went for a walk, clinging to the shadows, hating everything about dim, dreary, sweltering, grimy Carcassonne.

Along the way, I passed a three-star hotel near Pont Vieux – the bridge that spans the Aude River and leads to the medieval fortress, which overlooks Carcassonne. I had a brief chat with myself as I walked across the bridge: “Julie, don’t be an idiot. You are an adult. You have a good job. You can give yourself permission to stay in a decent place!”

I turned around and walked back to the fleabag hotel, grabbed my backpack and left. Bugger the money I’d already paid. It wasn’t worth the torture. I checked in at the Hotel Les Trois Couronnes and had myself a civilized, air-conditioned, insect-free night in a sparkling room with a view of the Citadel.

Had I been a character in a Margaret Atwood novel, not only would I have resigned myself to staying at the dive, I would have found cockroaches lurking in the bathroom sink, the shower wouldn’t have worked, I’d have shared the mattress with bedbugs and been kept up all night by the exuberant lovemaking of my next door neighbors and the drunken fighting in the streets outside.

Did I mention I would have just lost a breast to cancer? And recently split from my self-absorbed cheat of a boyfriend? And spinning my wheels in a career I no longer cared about? Oh, and my apartment would have been recently broken into, a lariat of thin rope left curled on my bed.

Welcome to the world of Rennie Wilford, small-town Canadian making an unsatisfying living as a free-lance writer in Toronto. Rennie once had hopes of a career in journalism, exposing political outrages and human rights’ violations. She now writes lifestyle pieces, at times inventing fashion trends to create an assignment that will pay the rent.

Rennie’s life is a series of betrayals. Her editors, her boyfriend, her body – all out to use and abuse her. When menaced by a stranger who leaves his murder weapon as a calling card, Rennie decides it’s time to leave town for a while. She accepts an assignment – a fluff travel piece – in a flyspeck island in the Caribbean, St. Antoine. Which is experiencing a bloody revolution.

If there’s anything else that can go wrong in Rennie’s life, Atwood is certain to ferret it out and make it happen.

As a reader, you are forced to suspend empathy with Rennie. Atwood treats her cruelly, putting her in impossible situations or making her behave in ridiculous ways. It is hard not to cringe, not to wave your hands and shout “Don’t do it!” You must read passively, watching this depressed and depressing young woman crash and burn.

Crikey! I’m not painting a very pretty picture, am I? Why even read this? Because, although this story is painful, the writing is incredible. Because Atwood smashes writing conventions left and right, tossing in flashbacks that bring present-day action to a shuddering halt, by crafting a protagonist you want to shake silly, by tossing in sub-plots that illustrate the emotional crap we all haul around. Because few writers can wrap a story in – can warp a story with – satire and tragedy, and still speak so well to the truth of the human condition as Margaret Atwood.

We’re each on our own insignificant island in the middle of nowhere, fighting our bloody revolutions, aren’t we?

Bodily Harm was published in 1981. It could have been written yesterday. Rennie, version 2012, would have her laptop stolen, Wifi service on St. Antoine would be non-existent. There would still be a revolution, still be people desperate or amoral enough to use a vulnerable, hapless woman. Rennie would be faced with the same lousy circumstances and make the same lousy decisions.

Still, I would have stayed at the better hotel

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

  1. Hey, where’s the “Reply” button on your last comment? Is there a limit to thread length here or something?

    And: holy shit sticks! Guess what I am reading RIGHT NOW?? Embassytown, by — China Mieville! Who, again, I had never heard of before I saw the glowing review of it in Entertainment Weekly. (You may have noticed I have a limited source of book recommendations. It’s fine, since it takes me forever to finish books anyway, I don’t need that many such sources.) This one isn’t so dystopian so far, but steampunk — maybe. It’s uber-science fiction of the type I rarely read (because honestly, most science fiction novels are actually crap) but I’m enjoying it. This in spite of being immersed into a world so alien from page one that I’m constantly referring to my dictionary app and learning made up words and their meaning through repeated use and context. This is a bit frustrating at first because a lot of times I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. But slowly but surely it’s coming together. And Mieville clearly has such a complete vision of this totally invented world that I’m kind of in awe.

    And no, I haven’t read David Mitchell, but it sounds like maybe I should. I’ve seen the trailer to Cloud Atlas the movie and it looks amazing.


  2. I have only read one of Margaret Atwood’s novels: The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read it twice and will likely read it again one of these days. For some reason I still haven’t moved on to any of her others. Is there any other you think a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale should absolutely read?


    • Matthew, she’s so prolific, it’s scary. I’ve read perhaps a half dozen of her novels and feel like I’ve just begun. I’ve also started and abandoned a couple of her books- just not my style. And that’s the other amazing thing about Atwood – she defies genre. What an amazing brain. Dystopia is rarely my thing – A Handmaid’s Tale is a rare exception. You might look at Oryx and Crake (The MaddAddam Trilogy #1) and Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy #2). I gave up on both, but the writing is amazing- just not my kind of story.

      I loved Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. These are historical fiction in a traditional storytelling style – more my speed. Alias Grace gets a full on WOW from me. Then there are her contemporary stories, like Bodily Harm, Surfacing, Cat’s Eye, which I’ve read, and The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, which I haven’t.

      But if you really loved Handmaid’s I’d go for Oryx and Crake. And let me know what you think. I may give it another go.


      • Well, that’s just the thing. One of the things, I think, that kept me from reading other Margaret Atwood novels is that The Handmaid’s Tale is *so* unique, it’s even unlike any other dystopian novel — and dystopia is TOTALLY my thing. As long as it’s done right. But other Atwood novels often sound like they just can’t stack up to it. And on the surface, Oryx and Crake — which I had never heard of before you mentioned it — sounds great. But this excerpt from Entertainment Weekly’s 2003 review of it gives me pause:

        “The problem may be rooted in the question of genre. When people described Atwood’s 1986 ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as science fiction, she denied it. To her, sci-fi was basically pulpish stuff about spaceships and Martians. Her story of a future of reduced fertility and female slavery belonged to a different tradition.

        “In ‘Oryx and Crake,’ though, she takes on sci-fi at its pulpiest. We have weird inventions, lone geniuses, fascist rent-a-cops, fabulous animals, a lost tribe, and the end of the world. This is not 1984 or Brave New World; it is Ender’s Game or Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Atwood’s intelligence is obvious in everything she does, from the crafting of sentences on up, so you have to assume she knows this. But she doesn’t quite pull it off.”

        For me, those references to 1984 and Brave New World — as works this novel cannot compare to — are incredibly telling. I’ve told you before, I think, that Brave New World is my favorite novel ever; I’ve read it four times. 1984, though I’ve only read it once, is another favorite. And I have *always* set The Handmaid’s Tale right alongside those. And it tends to feel like, more often than not, when I read about another book of hers, I am less inclined to read it because it just can’t compare. I realize that’s perhaps a little unfair. But for me, those three amazing dystopian books were about much more than just a bleak future — they were far ahead of their time in terms of how they reflected on the time in which they were written as well as their visions of where things were headed. Oryx and Crake, thematically at least, sounds comparatively behind the curve.

        I may still give it a look, so I still appreciate the recommendation. For all I know, it may suck me in in spite of its flaws. It’s the writing, after all, that sucked me in more than anything with The Handmaid’s Tale — the second time I read it was sort of by accident: I happened to read a bit of the first page and it was sort of like, “Dammit! Now I have to read this whole thing again!”

        I may go ahead and take your recommendations of Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin first, though; they do both sound interesting, and guess what? EW gave both of those a solid A (O&C got a B-). Nearly all the newer books I read are because I read A reviews of them in that magazine.


      • Now I will really be curious for your thoughts! Have you read any David Mitchell? Cloud Atlas, which will soon be appearing in film form at a theatre near you, is astonishing. In my humble opinion he is the most imaginative, talented storyteller of our generation. Gives me shivers. And if you are really into dystopia, steam-punk kind of lit, do you like China Mieville?


  3. I love Atwood too. There is a quality to her writing that makes one have to keep reading it, no matter how uncomfortable her words, her vision might be. Sometimes I feel almost as if she is akin to some addictive substance. The more one reads her writing, the more one needs to devour it. Once I gave a book of hers as a present to my aunt without reading it first. My aunt is schizophrenic and I gifted her with a beautiful copy of Alias Grace. Later, when I read it myself I was horrified at what I had done……..but like me, she loved it! Unlike me, she was able to sleep at night after reading it. That novel haunted my dreams for months!! Now that’s superb writing! 🙂


    • Oh, I so agree. Alias Grace knocked me sideways. I wonder if the story gave your aunt a sense that someone understood her experience, the journey of her mind. Atwood is astonishing. How does she do it?


  4. The reason I love writing book reviews is encapsulated wonderfully in this gem of a review which you have presented here to your readers. The best reviews, like this one, take the novel under consideration, and discover an angle, a sideways entry point, a slant-wise glance, and turn eyes, lightly draped with a covering, a film, a veil, a different perspective – something personal, which turns the review just enough askance from the novel in question, to leave the reader wondering whether in fact they have just read an excellent example of a personal essay, an exercise in creative non-fiction, as much as a review. Julie, your reviews are always worth reading…and learning from. And, oh yes, I shall have to read this novel too!!:-)


    • Now THAT is awesome, Edith! Makes me long to read more of your writing.
      I think you might like this. I’m sure there are graduate school seminars devoted to Atwood as Feminist Writer and Atwood’s female characters. This is tough, because there is little about Rennie I found admirable. But Atwood is amazing. Even when I don’t care for what she’s writing about, she still blows my mind.


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