Life Before Man

Margaret Atwood

It’s ‘70s Canada. It’s a marriage that is not really one, at least not a good one. Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje (pronounced Lashia) are the characters that people it. Not one of them is particularly likeable. Elizabeth is scheming, manipulative and damaged by a nasty childhood. Nate is insipid, a bit of a loser and it’s difficult to see the attraction he holds for the women. Lesje is the most attractive of the lot – with her multi-religious East European background and her almost nerdish fascination for dinosaurs (a time before man), there is a refreshing un-worldliness about her. Yet even she turns nagging, conventional by the end.

Life Before Man is a series of short episodes stretching through a time period of 3 years. It is a sharp and tight portrait of 3 people and their relationship with each other. It is a picture of Elizabeth and Nate’s rotten marriage, of her savagery arising out of a painful past that includes suicides of her mother and sister, an ogre-aunt and most recently her ex-lover’s suicide as well. Of unambitious Nate who has given up a career in law to hand craft toys and of his desire for the dreamy paleontologist Lesje who he sees as an ethereal innocent. Of Lesje’s introduction to the adult world of love and hard relationships and her realization that maturity is really ‘the point where you think you’ve blown your life’.

There is hardness and brittleness and vulnerability and cruelty and hopelessness in all of them. They are real in a way very few characters are in fiction. With a precision in language and structure, Atwood has created an intensely insightful novel that takes an extremely un-euphemistic look at people and how they live their lives.


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