Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood

There is a strong sense of déjà vu with Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood.

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I realised, a chapter in, that I had in fact read it before. So I’ve no idea why it was on the ‘to be read’ shelves. But the sense of echo was increased as I read on: this is a early version of The Blind Assassin, with a Canadian woman writing in secret, books within books and blurring identities.

Joan, the highly unreliable narrator, seeks constantly to escape her lives. At first through mentally escaping, then physically (through both transformation and literally running away). The problems really come when all her lives, both internal and external, start to collide: she can’t be a famous literary feminist poet and a writer of historical romances. She can’t be a loveable but dim wife and a revolutionary. And she running out of ways to flee…

I’m still not sure where I stand with this book. Is the final chapter one by a woman accepting her responsibilities, or already looking for another identity? Are we meant to empathise with Joan, or not? Towards the end, Joan says she might take up writing science fiction which, if you are aware of Atwood’s oscillating embrace of the genre, makes you laugh quite a lot.

I do think Joan is a great fictional fantasist. Some of the teenage sections are heart-breaking, but her subsequent choices make her either utterly selfish or utterly self-delusional. Is Atwood attempting to defend the historical romance genre, or saying it’s ultimately unfulfilling as an escape?

I may not have decided what I think of this still, but at least I’ll shelve it on the read shelves this time.

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