This is an astonishing book, at a number of different levels. The surface story is of Elaine, a middle-aged artist who returns to her childhood home of Toronto for an exhibition of her work, which activates all sorts of long-buried feelings and memories, but as a summary, that doesn't even come close to capturing the essence. The approach is first person present tense ("I stand in the snow...", "I walk up the street...") for describing both present and past, which sounds confusing, but actually the switches in time cause only the slightest joggle before the mind adjusts. Using the same style for all eras of Elaine's life also works brilliantly to underscore one of Atwood's major points - that "Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions in space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once."
The prose is literate without ever being flowery or overblown, and Atwood has an uncanny skill for choosing exactly the perfect word every time. Whatever a reader may think of the story or themes, the book is a delight to read purely for the precision of the writing. Atwood writes with a painter's eye. "We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men's work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we're out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends." And, like a painter, she carefully builds a picture of Elaine's life, brush-stroke by brush-stroke, layer by layer, to create a nuanced depth of character.
There are many different themes that resonate throughout the book. The art world. Gender roles and how women interract differently with men and women. The feminist movement. Childhood and adulthood. The nature of time. The casual cruelty of adults towards children and of children towards each other. The need for resolution. Science and art. Atwood takes sly digs at Toronto, old and new, and the modern world generally. Undoubtedly there are many more layers that whizzed over my head.
At a personal level, I felt an unusually strong affinity for the lead character. Certain aspects of her childhood life resonated with my own. Not that I was ever bullied, but the sense of dislocation from those around you, the desire to fit in at all costs and not make waves, the lack of connection with a childhood home and the unexpected connection with somewhere quite different (in Elaine's case it was Vancouver: "...as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning", in my case Scotland). And I liked that Elaine was on the outside just a rather ordinary middle-aged woman, but her art seethed with violent emotions (not directly like me, there, but I can understand it).
But even without any personal connection, this book is a wondrous affair, every line a joy to read. The story itself is fairly slight, but the undertones have as much depth as the reader cares to draw out. And if it sounds dry, it's not, it's salted with humour that had me laughing out loud many times. I highly recommend it. Five stars.