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Lady Oracle is yet another classic Margaret Atwood novel.
All her novels revolve around the role of woman in society and her constant battle against the pressures upon her. A common theme sees her protagonists trying to recapture their identity.
In the case of Joan Foster in Lady Oracle, she has created so many identities for herself that she feels the only way she can resolve this problem is to fake her own death.
The novel opens on her stating just this, that she hopes her death will be much better planned than her life ever was, but when we realise she has fled to the very place she and her husband spent their honeymoon you realise she may find it difficult to even succeed in this. Or most likely a sub-conscious part of her is very much keen to be found out. In typical Atwood style the battle the protagonists fight within themselves is never clean cut but as cluttered and complex as Joan's life is.
The story unfolds backtracking on how Joan ended up where she is when we meet her. The door is opened on her childhood where she was a fat girl, intensely bullied and receiving no comfort from her mother who put her on diet after diet. Her one friend is her colourful aunt.
Joan is forced to move out of home due to her mother's constant diet regimes and with this move, ironically, she finally finds the incentive to lose the weight. She is then able to completely renounce her childhood and begin life again as an adult. This is to the extent that on meeting her future husband the last thing she wants is for him to find out she was fat, as though it would be the most unthinkable thing on earth. When their quickie marriage takes them to her aunt's sitting room, now she is moonlighting as some kind of sudo-priest, she is brought to her wits end as the photo of her as a child with her aunt looms in a picture frame in the background.
Joan escapes detection but cannot escape the fact she is on a completely different wavelength to her husband and his friends. Her affair with the Royal Porcupine begins. He has to be one of my favourite Atwood characters. He claims to be a polish count and an artist but his art comes in the form of road kill which he freezes. His house is full of the stuff. Joan understandably starts questioning her own sanity whilst in this relationship and it is incredible for her to discover he has actually been cheating on her. Yet another woman has fallen for his 'charms'.
The other major draw to this book is the novel within a novel. The Royal Porcupine introduces Joan to writing costume romances. Here she assumes a pen name - yet another identity to prevent detection - and it is the money from one of her books which funds her escape. As a reader we are given excerpts from the novels she writes and they are surprisingly gripping in their own right.
The plot which Joan thinks up with the assistance of her closest friends that she will fall off a boat and drown is ludicrous. The postcards with code words are just cliché but this is all intentional on Atwood's part. Joan lives in a make believe world where faking her death would work.
Atwood uses Lady Oracle as a platform to put across her own social criticism on how women are perceived, pigeon holed into several conflicting identities and made to feel they need to make each work to the point women feel like they need to run away from themselves.
Atwood is a master at writing accessible, easy to read prose, while dragging us into the intensity and drama of the story through her vividness and creativity. It is also her wit and her characterisation which breed life into her novels. But it is her accuracy and trueness to life which ensure her an appreciative audience, particularly among women who can associate most closely with her books.
"I planned my death carefully; unlike my life which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls much praised by fashion magazines when I was fifteen. No trumpets, no megaphones, no spangles, no loose ends, this time. The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality. At first I thought I'd managed it"
If that opening paragraph doesn't grab your attention and make you immediately want to rush to read 'Lady Oracle,' I don't know what will. It immediately seems as if this will be a novel drizzled in Atwood's glorious prose and meticulous characterisation, which will have your fingers glued to the page from start to finish.
Unfortunately, this paragraph also seems to be where 'Lady Oracle' ceases to be an outstanding novel. For all the excitement and intrigue we are promised, very little is actually delivered until the closing hundred pages. The plot begins with a sleepy start; the narrative is split between the main character recounting her childhood and the unfolding tale of her new 'death' in Italy. With the majority of page time being devoted to her back story, this means there is very little fresh development in the plot as until the book nears its end, the scenes in Italy are either of terribly mundane day to day life or the protagonist moping endlessly.
The protagonist's back story is as dull and drab as her personality. Her one defining trait seems to be that she was a fat child and everything else that occurred obviously happened as a result of her weight. Many of the childhood stories felt like they were recycled from other Atwood novels which didn't help with how tedious many of them seemed. Whilst the descriptive prose is still of Atwood's usual quality, I couldn't bring myself to enjoy the bland tales of a slightly neurotic mother and distant father and the endless petulant whining the main character seems to be able to conjure up.
The one highlight in these dreary times is the character of Aunt Lou. She is the family wildcard, with her 'inappropriate' ways and modern ideas and is the saviour of the protagonist. She is a genuinely likeable character, with her wise, cryptic ways and her interest in the occult. She helps make these sections more bearable by injecting some fun and humour, helping to keep the pace from grinding to a standstill.
To anyone who could find the protagonist a sympathetic character, I'm sure these sections would be very enjoyable, as they have obviously been created with Atwood's usual care and attention to detail. However, I felt that it was just too extremely miserable and self-indulgent to be enjoyable and just found myself getting frustrated by the indecisive and passive nature of our heroine.
One nice and slightly unusual feature of 'Lady Oracle' which also helps save it from mediocrity is the use of a 'novel within a novel.' The secret identity of the main character is that of a 'Costumed Gothics' writer and we get to see the plots of these develop alongside those in the real world. I found these fantastically trashy excerpts incredibly enjoyable and they provide great escapism from the main character's misery-fuelled life, which is exactly the reason she is writing them.
For all my complaints about the beginning of this novel, it does undergo somewhat of a transformation when the back story begins to lead up to the event of the main character's disappearance. The plot is wonderfully convoluted and it is enthralling to see all the little bits of detail fall into place and reveal the jigsaw of the plot. The pace suddenly awakes to a ferocious rate, mimicking the sudden ascent to fame of the main character. It is at this point that 'Lady Oracle' becomes solid Atwood gold again.
The ending chapters are what save this book from simply being a the dull tale of a mildly traumatic childhood, falling into a tepid, drab marriage and a dreary life, brightened only by the highlights of what are essentially Mills and Boon novels, to a genuinely gripping drama. I did feel that this made all the patience required to endure every recounting of the tale of the Fat Lady at the circus worth it.
'Lady Oracle' does develop to be a lot more than just a tale of a woman's life and it is littered with the usual social commentary and symbolism. Although Atwood has certainly given every character a lot of unusual and quirky traits, they do feel a little soulless and flat and the whole story lacks her usual humane touch. It is still one worth reading, albeit with a bit of patience, it just lacks the usual glimmer.
Margaret Atwood's 'Lady Oracle' is a witty, insightful exploration of the difficulties of being a woman writer. The novel's protagonist, Joan Foster has escaped to Italy, for reasons unknown to the reader. She relates to the reader the struggles she has faced with achieving a singular 'identity': from being an awkward, fat child, to a successful author of cheap, 'bodice-ripper' fiction. Her attempts to define herself within the bounds of phallo-centric discourse are persistently thwarted, as she anticipates in the novel's first few lines: 'my life had a tendency to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror'. Throughout the novel, there are allusions to Lacan and the feminist theory of Luce Irigaray as Atwood explores the ideas of subject/object, passive/active dichotomies, however if you're not familiar with such writings, don't be put off. Atwood's allusions to theory are interspersed with hilarious anecdotes from her childhood and relationships that lighten the subject matter and make this novel an altogether compelling read.
One of my all time favourite books, Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle skips through decades, countries, boyfriends and occupations of it's leading lady. Born in Canada, she is constantly thriving to express herself throughout life and therefore adopts a number of different roles - the fat kid, the loyal wife, the exciting girlfriend to a Russian count, and a secret, although successful, author of romantic period fiction.
This career epitomises her yearning for excitement and romance, and all the delicious emotions that are felt by the heroines she writes about. The drama continues right up until the end of her life when she is living in Italy, returning to where her and her husband often holidayed, but travels in disguise.
I have read this book more times than any others and adore it for it's quirky, but realistic characters. One of my favourites is her Aunt Clara, a fan of the occult. Because of it's length it'd make an ideal holiday read but one I feel should be in every UK home.