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Moral Disorder, by Margaret Atwood

Light at the end of life's tunnel

VS Pritchett defined the short story as "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing". This seems too modest. A story can be a gasp as well as a glimpse, like opening the bedroom curtains and finding one's street altered beyond recognition. The form is close to poetry, and though it isn't essential to be a poet to write good short stories, it is certainly an advantage, as Margaret Atwood demonstrates in this new collection: a model of distillation, precision, clarity and detail.

"The wallpaper - one of many layers as could be seen from the torn parts - was a faded green, with bulbish, pinkish-brown flowers on it. The floor was linoleum covered in a pattern of maroon and orange oblongs Nell recognised from The Fifties." Though Moral Disorder is more personal than political, Atwood writes with compassion and intensity not only about her characters but also about the 20th century itself. Just when we thought we had seen the last of baby showers and banished the word "adultery" along come material girls, real estate and feng shui.

The early stories are written in the first person ("The Headless Horseman", "The Other Place'") and evoke the anguish of adolescence. They are particularly good on Nell's eccentricity, compulsive transitoriness, ascetic furnishings and empty affairs. Half way through, Atwood switches to the third person and veers towards the novel with sequential narratives ("Monopoly", "Moral Disorder"), which develop Nell's surprisingly stable relationship with Tig. They move into a freezing ramshackle farmhouse, embrace an alternative life-style and live off the land, neither of them with a full-time job (she's an editor, he a documentary film-maker). They adopt a tribe of anarchic animals, grow vegetables and learn farming by the seat of their pants as well as the brutality of husbandry. Nell even has a baby.

Atwood is as exact about the care of horse tackle as she is about a little sister's mental illness. Within the collection's exceptional unity she explores the variety and flexibility of the short story in a manner not unlike Alice Munro's in her longer narratives. I was also reminded of Jean Rhys's more louche "Sleep It Off, Lady", an inspired autobiography cast as chronological short stories

In "My Last Duchess", Nell has a vision of her impeccable English teacher, Miss Bessie, smiling with gentle irony and holding aside a curtain behind which is the entrance to a dark tunnel. "Inside the tunnel was what I was meant to learn... I'd be finding things out. I'd be all on my own." In the final story, Nell is trying desperately to communicate with her blind and dying mother, who can hear only through one ear. Through this tunnel, Nell puts questions and slowly draws out the lives of her parents whom she has rejected as prudish and dull. The past emerges, funny, poetic, surprising and suddenly precious. Again she is finding things out, and again she is all alone.