Review: Life Before Man

Life Before ManLife Before Man
by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Life Before Man / 0-385-49110-7

I love this novel if only because it's a visceral reminder not to judge a book by its title: I'll always remember when a young man chastised me for my choice of "feminist literature", only to blanch when I informed him that the title references a dinosaur museum!

Punch-ups aside, though Atwood is often identified as a feminist writer, she can be just as accurately described as a humanist writer: of the four main sympathetic actors in this book, two are male, and both are in some ways the most sympathetic characters of the four. Atwood excels in the art of making us see both sides of any relationship - actions that seem cruel and petty from one point of view may just as easily seem acts of desperation and pain from another - and the reader is able to understand that both points of view are accurate, without contradiction.

The actors here are a married couple who no longer love each other yet cannot seem to break free from one another, and the respective lovers of each. The lovers are sympathetic throughout the novel, as they suffer without being given the "right" to suffer; a girlfriend can't really be hurt, frustrated, or upset when her boyfriend cancels a date to go see his estranged wife and children, can she? Of course, she can and does hurt, but she is denied a social outlet to express her pain. Similarly, a boyfriend "shouldn't" be devastated when his girlfriend ends their fling and dutifully returns to her husband and children, and yet that "shouldn't" doesn't stop him from feeling the pain or from suffering loneliness. Quiet pain and desperation are Atwood's forte, and her characters realistically suffer from it.

Like most Atwood stories, there is no magical happy ending here, but there is at least one that leaves room for hope, as we wonder if humanity will someday evolve into a being that can understand the feelings of others, and not just his own.

~ Ana Mardoll

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