MARGARET ATWOOD: THE POETRY OF DYSTOPIA at Waterstone’s Amsterdam

“What is dystopia?” Tim had sat himself at the front of the audience, he coughed softly, clapped his hands once and asked this question as a way in.

The previous buzz and chit chat of excited anticipation for this Atwood evening died suddenly into a hush, then a stillness and silence. The warm bodies of those who had braved the rain for this evening’s event were turned towards him as we considered this seemingly simple query – we were, after all (I assumed), here because we were Atwood fans and therefore should have a definition in mind.

“How do we define dystopia? Dystopian fiction?”

Someone suggested, “something dark”. Another, “the opposite of utopia”. Yes, yes, we nodded and agreed. Before a more philosophical voice stated: “every utopia is a dystopia”.

And with this Tim began.

He expertly and personally guided us through a selection of Atwood’s work across her lifetime. Starting from where she began – as a child who lived fairly nomadically in Canada, surrounded by nature and books, to her earlier poetry and on, delving into her novels and short stories, or extended prose.

Tim shared just enough. The snippets kept the audience interested and also worked to weave his story together well. He didn’t do this chronologically but with craft and with thought; his combinations of carefully prepared choices took us on a journey of not only her life works but also his own life. Beginning with the life of a boy who loved to read growing up, and the challenging dynamic this brought with it, to the life of a man who has found an affinity with the characters he meets: or as he put it, “getting his reflection back from other people”.

Tim was a wonderful literary tour guide. He effectively led us through the lesser known poems, gave us glimpses of her “speculative fiction” (apparently Atwood doesn’t call it Science Fiction) and brought her funny re-casts of familiar narratives (such as the Grimm tales or the Little Red Hen fable) to life. At times he would comment on these with important biographical information, personal anecdotes or reflections but more often than not with humour.

Also he shared quotes from newspaper articles and interviews with the author. She was unfortunately too busy to attend this event herself as (Tim reliably informed us) she was “probably in a pub round the corner!” But should we want our copies of the new book signed – on a special reduced price tonight – he was “happy to oblige?” I would highly recommend joining Tim for an evening of poetry (once the shop refurbishment has completed) in a few weeks. I know I will certainly be looking out for the next one.

I didn’t just leave with two new Atwood books to enjoy. I left feeling a shared sense of satisfaction, a renewed appreciation for the value of reading and a deeper understanding of a writer I have loved since my teenage years. Tim reminded me why I enjoyed it so much but also inspired me to read it again, to see what I might find as an adult. To conclude, as Tim did, “dystopia is a broad church. . . and Atwood is a broad church”. Amen to that.   Rose Fawbert Mills   11th September 2019

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