Women wearing red cloaks and face-concealing bonnets at political protests in recent years speak to the enduring popularity and relevance of Margaret Atwood’s most well-known book, The Handmaid’s Tale. In a 30th-anniversary essay about the novel, featured in her delectable new collection, Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021, Atwood lays no claim to prescience, but of course, she is just being humble. (She is, after all, Canadian.) With an inquiring mind and the razor-sharp intellect to fuel it, this cherished and award-winning writer, now 82, is never afraid to push boundaries or speak her mind about the things that matter to her and, collectively, to many of us. What may surprise casual readers of Atwood’s work is the way her mind is honed by a delicious wit that makes reading her thoughts on a wide array of subjects as entertaining as it is edifying.
There are more than 60 wide-ranging pieces gathered in this capacious collection: essays, speeches, reviews, introductions and appreciations. Somehow the book manages to be both an enchanting hodgepodge (in the best sense) and a cohesive amalgam of a writer’s vision. Many of the entries tap into one or both of Atwood’s primary concerns: literature and environmental science. The daughter of a scientist, Atwood has true bona fides in the latter category and has been sounding the call for climate change awareness for some time, such as with the MaddAddam trilogy.
In addition to providing invaluable insight into her own work, Atwood digs with enthusiasm into Shakespeare, Kafka, Dickens, Dinesen, Bradbury and the ancient Greeks. She writes with cleareyed affection about women slightly older than her who paved the way, such as Alice Munro, Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin. Rachel Carson, a clear favorite, makes numerous appearances, and the book ends with a brief reflection on the 2020 death of conservationist writer Barry Lopez.
This is the third collection of occasional nonfiction pieces Atwood has assembled over her 60-year career, and she divides it into five sections reflecting societal changes over the course of the last two post-9/11 decades. Some of the pieces are quite current—there is a piece on quarantine, for instance—but as one might expect, Atwood avoids a straightforward or navel-gazing approach even when contemplating our current state of affairs. Instead, the COVID-19 piece hearkens back to the everyday realities of quarantine (against diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough) when she was a child in the 1940s.
While no means an autobiography, Burning Questions scatters a generous enough smattering of personal recollections and details throughout to grant intriguing, often charming insight into Atwood’s singular life, from girlhood to her life partner’s death in 2019. Years ago, a lesser-known Toronto-based writer told me that “Peggy” Atwood was always a welcome—and hilarious—guest at dinner parties. That appraisal stayed with me, and upon reading Burning Questions, there can be little doubt it’s true.