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The news from Gilead may be bleak, but the author of The Handmaid’s Tale and other contemporary classics is pushing back with her trademark wit and invention. Next March, Doubleday is publishing Margaret Atwood’s luminous Old Babes in the Woods, her first collection since 2014’s celebrated Stone Mattress, 15 stories that showcase a master at the height of her power. In an exclusive, Oprah Daily reveals the book’s chic, cheeky cover, suggesting mischief’s afoot in the author’s imagination.
Atwood’s got a lot on her mind: the Covid pandemic, mortality, literature…and cats. The design features half of a feline face with a Partridge Family–style bird as its eye, a nod to her Cat’s Eye; the lettering echoes the fonts of The Handmaid’s Tale and its sequel, The Testaments. The collection is a kind of bestiary for the 21st century: Here you’ll find elderly women ruminating on their lives, but also other, unexpected narrators, among them an alien octopus and a snail reincarnated as a bank manager. “Old Babes in the Wood is a mixed bag, like life. It contains bad taste, also like life,” Atwood observes. “Is a story about a woman who is a snail at heart really about being quite old? Maybe. Are dead beloveds actually dead in any real sense of the word? Maybe not. Are cats what they seem? Hardly ever. I love the cover—simple but ambiguous, and it crosses lines. Is the prey in the eye of the predator? But of course.”
A George Saunders-like reimagining of a European folk tale; an interview between “Margaret Atwood” and George Orwell, conducted through a séance; a Tennyson-esque lament for a dead pet—these are among the book’s formal innovations. Atwood glides across registers like a prima ballerina, from the surreal and comic to the historical and elegiac. There’s also a poignant series of stories that serves as bookends, limning the decades-long marriage between Tig and Nell, the rupture of widowhood and the ebb and flow of grief, punctuated by perfectly placed rhetorical questions. “What was the history?” Nell muses. “No one left to ask. But what business is it of hers, anyway? None, except that she’s inherited it, like the silver teapot, the sugar sifter, the fish knives. Objects move from hand to hand, things get forgotten about, their meanings evaporate.”
“Old Babes in the Wood is an unforgettable collection and—as always with Atwood—containing multitudes,” says Lee Boudreaux, Atwood’s editor. “From the magisterial ‘A Dusty Lunch,’ one of several stunningly panoramic stories unspooling the shared history of a long-married couple, to the playfully wise ‘My Evil Mother,’ this book is a treasure.”
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