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Circles of Life in Atwood's ''Life Before Man''
Aug 31, 2002 12:27 PM 9267 Views
(Updated Aug 31, 2002 01:17 PM)



Perhaps what makes a novelist the most interesting is the ability to write uniquely individual and different stories with each novel that is crafted. This definitely holds true for Margaret Atwood, who again takes a very different direction, both stylistically and structurally, in her fourth novel ''Life Before Man.''

For me, this novel really hit home in its exploration of three uniquely different characters, whose lives intertwine and weave their way in and out of one another's life. All three are in a midlife crisis of sorts, and the novel begins with a very stunning and moving portrait of the deep depression the central character of the novel, Elizabeth, is in. We learn that she has lost her lover to a suicide, and we follow her and her husband Nate, and his lover, Lesje (pronounced ''Lashia'') over a three year journey that has very different endings for all of them.

Atwood has structured the telling of her novel into an interesting schematic - it's fairly linear, in that (for the most part) the chapters over the course of the novel take us from a beginning to an end. And yet, it's unique in that each character is developed bit by bit, individually in chapter after chapter devoted to one character, and then another. Each chapter is labeled with a name and a date, and this omniscient almost personal-journal style lends a lot to the detachment the characters feel. It's jarring at first to get into, but in the end it really lends to the overall telling of the tale.

Atwood has also created some very interesting metaphors and symbols. The history of man across time, and the cycles of life play a prominent role in ''Life Before Man.'' I noted that there are three central characters in the novel, and that the novel takes place over a three year time-frame, all of which may go to represent the three stages of life: birth, the experience of living and death.

The two female characters also work in the Royal Ontario Museum, and both work hard to preserve the past in exhibits for the twentieth-century consumer market. Lesje has had a life-long fascination with dinosaurs, and her innocence disappears over the course of the novel as she comes to the realization that man is even more fragile then the mighty dinosaurs that once roamed the Earth. This cycle of life is heavily explored here from the three points of view of the characters, and its interesting to watch.

I also found parallels to Atwood's first three novels, in that the central female character grew up in a life they struggled to break free from. Whether it is the nameless young woman of ''Surfacing,'' who leaves her desolate home of Northern Quebec at an early age, only to return when her father has gone missing; or whether it is Joan Foster, who strove to escape the iron fist of her mother in ''Lady Oracle.'' And in ''Life Before Man'' we are presented with Elizabeth who grew up under the iron fist of her Aunt. But what each novel shows us is that in the end, no matter how hard they try, these characters cannot escape the horrible travails of their pasts, and eventually they will have to confront them directly in order to achieve true closure and inner-freedom.

''Life Before Man'' is interesting in the fact that it was written in a time when the exploration of the self in our society was shunned upon. The touchy-feely self-help world of Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phill just didn't exist in the late 1970s, in spite of all the free-love and escapism of only a decade before. As such, the stresses of everyday life must have been horrendous, and Atwood explores these journeys with wit and a fine sparse subtlety.

The sentences are short and to the point. There is no beating around the bush in ''Life Before Man,'' and the realizations come quickly as each chapter moves along, and the build-up of emotional suspense archs its way across the entire novel, climaxing with what possibly could be described as the inner deaths and rebirths of all three characters.

As storyteller and movie producer Robert McKee once said, ''story is a metaphor for life'' and this certainly lends itself as a perfect descriptor of Atwood's work. In the end, ''Life Before Man'' is a wonderful read, one that can certainly be related to by anyone who has ever loved and lost and learned to love again.

My Grade for ''Life Before Man'': B+

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Life Before Man - Margaret Atwood