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Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood


Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood was originally published in 1979 and it’s written in a different way than Atwood’s previous novels. It is divided into 5 parts. The first part takes place over the last 3 days in October in 1976. We are introduced to the main characters and start to get a sense of their lives. Part 2 is November & December 1976 and most of the themes are clear by the end of this part. Part 3 is January & February 1977. Here, the story gets a bit more fleshed out. Part 4 is from March 9, - July 9, 1977 - In this part we see more movement happen and relationships change. The fifth and final part is from September 3, 1977 - August 18, 1978 where the changes become more permanent and we see where everyone ends up.


The story is told by three different characters,alternating every chapter. First Elizabeth, 2nd her husband Nate and 3rd Elizabeth’s coworker Lesja. I liked the different point of views, but I was surprised it was written in third person.


Elizabth is married to Nate and they have two young daughters, Jane and Nancy. Elizabeth’s lover, Chris has died by suicide and she is grieving when the novel begins. Elizabeth’s past is a bit of a mystery and no one really knows all of it. She sees this as being to her advantage. We know she’s had a difficult childhood and we do eventually learn about her mother, sister and her horrible aunt Muriel that Elizabeth hates. I found that Elizabeth wants independence but she also wants someone to depend on and that might be true of all of the characters and they can’t figure out how to have it both ways.


Nate, Elizabeth’s husband feels that Elizabeth blames him for Chris’ death. Nate is a very nurturing man. He is a caring father and he is having an affair with Martha. It becomes clear very early on that Elizabeth and Nate’s marriage has been in trouble for some time and they are living together for the sake of the children. Nate was a lawyer and now he makes wooden toys in their basement.


The third main character is Lesja who works at the ROM with Elizabeth. Lesja’s job is her identity in many ways… Lesja’s boyfriend is William who she seems kind of ambivalent about.


The story starts off messy, but it only gets messier as Nate wants to start a relationship with Lesja and they eventually have an affair. All of this while still wanting to keep everything as normal as possible, which of course, isn’t possible. The story is about how they navigate these relationships.


In this novel, we see many themes that Atwood is known for. Death, suicide, mental illness, grief, marriage, separation, divorce, relationships, identity, and forgiveness, but the best part of the book for me was the writing.


Another great novel from Margaret Atwood.


Bookworm Rating: 🐛🐛🐛


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