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Margaret Atwood.

Toronto, Seal Books, c1981, 1982.
301pp, paper, $3.95.
ISBN 0-7704-1767-1.

Reviewed by E. James Kingstone.

Volume 11 Number 1.
1983 January.

The epigraph to Margaret Atwood's latest novel Bodily Harm prepares the reader for the novel's subject matter:

         A man's presence suggests what he is capable
         of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman's
         presence. ..defines what can and cannot be done to
         her. (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)

The novel is an examination of the defensive impulse: almost immediately— though certain details are pleasantly baffling because of the sophisticated flashback strategy Atwood employs—the reader learns that the protagonist, Rennie, has much to be defensive about. She has just had a mastectomy, her lover has walked out on her, and she returns home one afternoon to discover that her apartment has been broken into, the only evidence of an intruder a length of rope coiled ominously on her bed. She feels increasingly threatened and believes that a change of scenery is required. Here she has a distinct advantage: as a journalist "who does mostly lifestyles," she asks her editor to send her on a working holiday to one of the small Caribbean Islands (St. Antoine). She sees the assignment as an opportunity to put herself back together. (She feels incomplete since the surgeon, with whom she falls in love in one of the extended networks of flashbacks, "hacked" a piece of her away.)

Once there, however, she discovers that the small island's political instability, questionable tourist trade, and unpredictable consequences of her own actions conspire against her; indeed, her world continues to unravel. Bizarre things happen, and, the reader realizes that Atwood has written a thriller while giving an understanding, compassionate account of a woman whose brush with cancer and the torment of its post-operative aftermath is horrifying and insightful.

It is an ambitious novel, distinguished by incisive depths and shimmering surfaces: the ordinary and the extraordinary conflate to alarm and to astonish. For example, the terror that Rennie experiences when she finds herself suddenly imprisoned is reduced with powerful irony by Rennie's "desire for junk food and a Holiday Inn," and the revelation makes perfect sense, even to a reader who finds the protagonist's predicament remote from personal experience. She feels a sense of dislocation, strikingly evoked by glimpses of her mind's inability to furnish her thoughts with anything compelling from her past.

         She tries to remember what she herself use to think
         about, but she can't. There's the past the present
         and the future: none of them will do.

It is a suspenseful novel, but when the horror of Rennie's situation becomes too much even for the reader, Atwood, in the penultimate chapter, switches from the past tense to the future to relax the tension and allow readers to sit back off the edge of their seat. Technically, this structural device is one of Atwood's tricks, which distinguishes her as a gifted writer with a sure, confident understanding of form.

Bodily Harm is a gripping novel about contemporary values and anxieties that allows us to glimpse one character's capacity for protecting herself when the conventional rules of the game change dramatically and she finds her own values irrelevant. In the end, one discovers the resilience of the human spirit: for reasons that can be found throughout Bodily Harm readers have reason to be optimistic. We all pay a price for survival, but anything that is really important is costly; not a profound insight but one worth rediscovering in Bodily Harm.

E. James Kingstone, Ridley College, St. Catharines, ON.
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