Review: Wilderness Tips
Author: Margaret Atwood
By Mae Anthony
Wilderness Tips is a collection of short stories by multi-award winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Published in 1991, it contains ten short stories that focus on the lives of women, many of which are living in Canada and in the world of literature.
What makes her storytelling unique is the nature of its inventiveness; the way each story bursts with a static creative energy, and the way Atwood is able to present common themes in totally bizarre ways. Her novels project similar potency without a molecule of dispute, such as the plots underpinning The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), and Oryx and Crake (2003). Her short stories in Wilderness Tips are similar – they observe jaded angles of characters, perspectives and environments and somehow make (roughly) 20 page-long short stories feel like long, exasperated novels, at least in regards to character development.
The stories are in no way connected. Warranted, they all contain a central female character of which the story revolves around, and Canada is a central location of which the stories are set. A couple of them involve characters who are writers or journalists, but each one is essentially different from the next. Imagine dating a professor obsessed with a recently-discovered bog man? Imagine a friend vanishing into thin air? Think of the most disgusting thing you’ve done to spite an ex-lover and see if you can beat the second story in this collection. Many of these brief insights explore loss, monogamy, the strong influence of father-figures on young women, doomed romantic relationships, and the way women give themselves to those relationships.
The themes I’ve mentioned are explored within the most memorable parts of the book: the beginning and the end. Often the most memorable parts of a piece of work are important because they act as the introduction to something and permeate a closing departure to the work, and therefore hold significant poise in the mind. The first story “True Trash” surrounds a group of women working at a summer camp in Canada, caught in the crossfire of their first interactions with the perils of social reality: dealing with gawking teenage boys, female inadequacy and rivalry, and the implications of the social expectations about sex, love, motherhood, and, in a rather bleak apparent edifice, life’s innumerable disappointments. The final story “Hack Wednesday” looks at a woman who cares too much, is involved in a monogamous marriage, works for a shoddy, sell-out editor of a magazine, and can’t help but notice her life has slipped away from her. Atwood conveys this in the space of 25 pages and I found myself attached to this female character pitying her as she is holding herself crying on Christmas day, tipsy from egg-nog and nostalgic for a life she has watched pass her by. But not just any life: the life of a woman, the joys and pangs of being a woman, bearing children, and loving from a woman’s perspective:
“She will cry because the children are no longer children, or because she herself is not a child anymore, or because there are children who have never been children, or because she can’t have a child any more, ever again. Her body has gone past too quickly for her; she has not made herself ready.”
Wilderness Tips is a sound collection of stories by one of the most innovative literary minds of modern times. Her stories, novels, and poems will surely captivate, enchant, and delight you.