Mosaic of a struggling family

Atwood's latest short-story collection centers on a woman who spends her life taking care of others.

If "The Tent," Margaret Atwood's first short-story collection this year, seemed like a scrapbook – including drawings by the author, the Booker winner's second offering feels more like a photo album. Here's an older couple sitting down to breakfast before facing the daily dose of disaster from the newspaper. Here's an 11-year-old girl, knitting booties for the little sister she isn't sure she wants. Here she is dressing up as the Headless Horseman for Halloween. Here she is, years later, riding an abandoned white horse on the farm she owns with her lover. Oh, look, here's her husband's freaky first wife (more on her later).

Moral Disorder, which is both more engaging and more focused than "The Tent," centers on Nell, a freelance editor and occasional teacher living in Ontario. In 11 stories, Atwood takes us through Nell's life as caretaker – first to her anxiety-prone little sister, Lizzie; then to a haunted man to whom she feeds lasagna; then to "Tig," the man who becomes her husband, and his sons; then to Tig's first wife, Oona; and finally, to her parents. When we first meet Nell and Tig in "Bad News," they're occupying a twilight time Nell calls "still." They're both still alive, still healthy, and the catastrophes of the world still remain contained in newsprint. "These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we've only recently come to think of as still...."

After a brief look at Nell's present, the book jumps back about 60 years to the birth of her much-younger sister Lizzie. Nell, frightened at the changes in her mother, desperately knits baby clothes. "The danger that loomed was so vague, and there so large – how could I even prepare for it? At the back of my mind, my feat of knitting was a sort of charm, like the fairy-tale suits of nettles mute princesses were supposed to make for their swan-shaped brothers, to turn them back into human beings."

After Lizzie is born, Nell is appointed surrogate mother, a role she adopts again in her late 20s and 30s, after it becomes apparent Lizzie is mentally unstable. The stories about Nell and Lizzie – "The Art of Cooking and Serving," "The Headless Horseman," and "White Horse" – are among the strongest in the collection.

That's not to say that there isn't plenty to enjoy in the other offerings. In "My Last Duchess," Atwood easily nails life as a teenage nerd in high school, while taking apart Robert Browning's famous poem. And in "The Other Place," which covers Nell's wanderlust decade as an "itinerant brain," Atwood neatly skewers the 1960s counterculture in three sentences: "They lacked gravity. They wanted to live in the moment, but like frogs, not like wolves. They wanted to sit in the sun and blink."

Then Nell meets Tig – or, more accurately, Tig's first wife, Oona. Nell is working as the editor of a self-help book Oona wrote called "Femagician," when Oona starts confiding in Nell about her lackluster marriage and inviting her to dinner. Later on, Nell concludes that Oona had deliberately chosen her as a caretaker for Tig. Despite the inauspicious beginnings, the disapproval of Nell's parents, and Oona's eventual hatred, Nell and Tig create a life together on a farm north of Toronto.

This is also a time when Nell isn't talking to her parents. "She and her mother weren't exactly speaking. They weren't exactly not speaking, either. The silence that had taken the place of speech between them had become its own form of speech."

Fortunately, the two have worked past this by the time her mother loses her sight, and her only connection to the world is her one good ear. Nell recites family legends into this ear, feeling as if it's a tunnel connecting her to her mother. In the last story, "The Boys at the Lab," Atwood makes the photo album analogy explicit, as Nell goes through the family's old pictures. Frustrated that there's no one left to tell what happened, she begins making up stories to go with them, weaving together the memory fragments collected over the years.

"The fate of the boys is up to me," Nell says, as she begins to write.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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