Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author and poet. She was born in Ontario in 1939 and didn’t start school until she was 12 years old. From the young age of six, she began writing poetry, and by 16 she realized she wanted to be a writer. She published work in the Victoria College Journal and earned a degree in English in 1961. Her first novel published in 1969, The Edible Woman, presented radical feminist ideas foreign to the time period. She has been publishing ever since, with countless novels nominated for The Booker Prize and several adapted for film and television. Read on for the top 12 Margaret Atwood novels that are sure to empower and inspire.
Atwood published The Blind Assassin in 2000. This novel earned her the Man Booker Prize and is generally considered her best work. You won’t want to close the book from the very first line: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” It is a retrospective novel, set in the present but looking back at pinnacle moments throughout the twentieth century. The story is told by Iris, a woman now in her early eighties and suffering the effects of her aging body. She has little to do but reflect on her life, particularly the last few years of her sister Laura’s life. Another narrative weaves through the novel, a fantasy written by a pair of lovers on the run, and the events of this story reflect what’s happening in the real world. The novel, and Laura Chase in particular, have earned a cult-following and show Atwood at her most breathtaking.
The Handmaid’s Tale remains ever-relevant despite its publication in 1985. Presumably named with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in mind, it’s narrated by a woman named Offred in a war torn America, now called Gilead. The fertility rates have dropped, meaning there are very few women who can bear children. In this fundamentalist society, “sinners” who can bear children become Handmaids and are assigned to a wealthy family as a surrogate. Offred, labelled an adultress, is forced to be a Handmaid for the Waterfords, fearing equally that she won’t get pregnant, and that she will.
The society Atwood creates is nightmarish and she insists on calling it speculative fiction rather than dystopian—she drew inspiration from real life atrocities such as Magdalene Laundries, institutions to contain “bad women” found in multiple parts of the world to create the world of Gilead. These institutions were still running in Ireland when this novel was published, and were so named after Mary Magdalene in the Bible. The book was made into a film in 1990 with British actress Natasha Richardson (the American actresses at the time worried the role of Offred would negatively typecast them). Though the screenplay was written by famous playwright Harold Pinter, it’s often forgotten in light of the hugely successful TV series with Elizabeth Moss.
After 32 years, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale was released to instant success. The Testaments does not focus on Offred or Handmaids, but the other roles of women in Gilead, set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. This story splits its narrative between Aunt Lydia, a nun-like character who oversees Handmaids, Agnes, a child of Gilead learning how to be an appropriate woman, and Daisy, a teenager growing up in Canada and watching the devastation in Gilead unfold from the outskirts. While some critics worried The Testaments would act as fan service, an unnecessary sequel to a novel that was perfect alone, they were proved wrong when it won the Booker Prize in 2018. The world Atwood built in the first novel was so entrancing, if not horrifying, that a sequel seemed not only welcomed, but necessary.
4. Alias Grace
Atwood took the notorious story of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old girl accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper in 1843, and turned it on its head. This historical novel has two timelines—one post-murders where Doctor Simon Jordan assesses Grace’s mental wellbeing in prison, and one pre-murders that tells the story of Grace’s early life. Atwood imagines a different story for Grace, and though purely speculative, she provides an alternative theory to the well-known murder case. Alias Grace was published and nominated for the Booker Prize in 1996. A Netflix television series based on the novel came out in 2017, starring Sarah Gaddon and Anna Paquin; it was received favourably amongst critics as it stuck almost word for word to the novel. The clever narrative, the slow unfolding of information, and the tight suspense throughout the chapters is truly what makes Alias Grace one of Atwood’s best novels.
Although Atwood denies her work is dystopian, The Heart Goes Last reads as a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, set in an anarchist society. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple forced to live in their car since the collapse of civilization. Though Charmaine is naive and Stan is irritable, the pair love one another, and when offered an escape from their squalor, they jump at the chance. They enter Positron, a new society/experiment where everyone takes turns being a prisoner one month, and living in a nice home they share with another couple the next month. What seems like a dream—the town Charmaine and Stan move to when they’re free is based on 1950s aesthetics—quickly becomes a nightmare when their prison duties begin to involve questionable practices. In this society, your loyalty to Positron must weigh more than your loyalty to anyone else. Atwood proves herself once again to be highly imaginative and capable of incredible worldbuilding in The Heart Goes Last.
Oryx and Crake is the first in the Maddaddam Trilogy. The novel opens with a lone man named Snowman wandering aimlessly through a post-apocalyptic desert. The reader is then taken back to the past, before the apocalypse, to the mind of Jimmy, a man whose best friend is a crazy scientist named Crake who is in love with the beautiful Oryx. In their quest to improve human life and gain the affections of Oryx, Jimmy and Crake struggle to negotiate between their personal needs and the needs of the world. The 2003 novel was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and spawned two more novels, The Year of the Flood, published in 2009, and Maddaddam, published in 2013. Atwood suggested that everything that takes place in Oryx and Crake either has happened in history, or is capable of happening if the necessary science is applied.
Atwood’s first novel follows Marian, a woman living a very structured life, whose grasp on reality starts to slip when she gets engaged to her predictable and boring boyfriend Paul. Marian finds herself unable to consume certain kinds of food, and then any food at all, leading up to her wedding. She’s suddenly repulsed by the order in her life and seeks out a strange relationship with a man she knows from the laundromat. There are strong themes of consumer cannibalism in this novel, and while many wish to attach the feminist label to this story, Atwood insists it is a work of protofeminism, defined as “a philosophical tradition that anticipates modern feminism in an era when the concept of feminism was still unknown.” The Edible Woman was published when second-wave feminism gripped America in 1969.
Surfacing was Atwood’s second novel, published in 1972. The narrative follows a woman who returns to her hometown in the wake of her father’s disappearance. She visits with a group of friends and they stay in her widowed father’s cabin. The protagonist is never named, and as she searches for answers, her own repressed memories and trauma begin to surface. The novel turns surreal halfway through, and for this reason it gets a low score from general readers. However, Atwood’s greatest achievement with Surfacing is her depiction of a woman’s pain and the primal state the protagonist returns to in a bid to protect herself from further grief.
9. Cat’s Eye
Cat’s Eye was published in 1988 and was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Elaine Risley is a painter who recently returned home to Toronto for an art show, which sparks a trip down memory lane from her childhood. Her memories are clear, almost photographic, from when she made her first friends Carol and Grace after a life of nomadic living with her traveling parents. After the friend group welcomes Cordelia, Elaine is slowly frozen out and bullied, unable to stop herself from being the victim. This is a novel that predominantly focuses on the often complicated relationships amongst women. While some categorised Cat’s Eye into the “Best Friends” genre, this doesn’t do the novel justice, implying there is no examination of women’s pain and their capacity for cruelty. This story does so much more than explore the superficial aspects of female friendship; it puts them under a microscope and detects the parasites that eat away at this bond.
Hag-Seed is a modern day retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Initiative that aimed to publish novels that recounted the most famous Shakespeare plays in a modern way. Felix is a theatre director who falls out of favour and is exiled from his position when he is betrayed by a colleague. He is forced to work in a prison, teaching Shakespeare, and decides to put on a production of “The Tempest,” casting himself in the lead role of Prospero while planning revenge on those who wronged him. Atwood creates a new perspective on an old story, bringing a centuries-old tale into the 21st Century.
11. The Robber Bride
As seen with Hag-Seed and Alias Grace, Atwood is no stranger to retelling famous stories. In The Robber Bride, she reimagines the story The Robber Bridegroom from The Grimm Brothers. The 1993 novel focuses on Zenia, a treacherous woman who seeks to ruin the lives of a friendship trio. She cleverly infiltrates the friends’ lives at different moments in time and destroys what she can, focusing on their romantic relationships. In the present, the women meet once a month to discuss their lives and the woman who ruined them until Zenia reappears after a five year hiatus. Now the women must face their nemesis once more, but how do you destroy someone you thought was dead? As seen in Cat’s Eye, Atwood dissects the intricate nature of female friendships with a seductive and frightening villain intent on tearing them apart.
12. Lady Oracle
Lady Oracle focuses on a romance novelist named Joan Foster. After a difficult childhood, Joan is the queen of disguise and has multiple identities in case she needs to make a quick exit from a bad situation. When a collection of poetry makes her a sensation in the literary world, Joan receives a blackmail letter, threatening to expose her secrets. After a lifetime of running, she decides on one more escape—faking her death. But this will be Joan’s greatest task yet, and with someone watching, how will she be successful? Lady Oracle is a witty satire of Gothic romance novels. This novel is highly comedic, but there is a deep and heartbreaking insight into the mind and heart of a woman who has had to perform a disappearing act for her entire life.