If you have never read Margaret Atwood, Moral Disorder is as fine a place to start as any. On the other hand, if you are already an Atwood fan, this book should be at the top of your “must read” list.
Moral Disorder is made up of eleven short stories, all with the same central character, Nell. The settings are urban, rural, suburban, mountainous and all Canadian. The collection begins with a scene from Nell’s less than idyllic marriage. We meet her again, at age ten, knitting a layette for her soon to be born baby sister. The interwoven stories move us from the 1930’s to the present, culminating with the last two stories, each a heart-breakingly superb account of the death of her parents. Atwood’s tales seem to come from the pages of a family photograph album and create for Nell a full and complex life. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? A good question.
The sister for whom she knitted the layette follows Nell throughout the book. One story takes place when the sisters go to visit their elderly mother. Atwood’s storytelling puts the reader in the back seat eavesdropping as the younger sister drives. In the hands of a lesser writer, the poignant and thoughtful musings of mature sisters, ready to be honest with one another, might have turned saccharin. But here, their heartfelt conversation is constantly and hilariously broken into by the younger sister’s acerbic takes on every SOB driver on the road, but never skipping a beat before slipping back into the the sisterly conversation. It is sharp, crass and emotionally rich all at once. Atwood steers the reader from laugh-out-loud to deeply moved. It tempts one to go back and read it again just to see how she does it.
If you are pressed for time, read Moral Disorder, one story at a time, it almost doesn’t matter in which order. Or read this slim volume in one sitting. Either way, by the time you close the book for good, you will know and care about Nell, her family, her friends, her enemies. Atwood’s insight into human behavior and her eye for its surrounding detail make these stories accessible, intimate and surprisingly familiar. Nell’s life touches our own with sufficient compassion for all.