Bodily Harm – Margaret Atwood

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At last! A spare moment to return to my much neglected blog. I read Bodily Harm quite a while ago but just have not had time to blog a review.

I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and know most of her books, so I was surprised to find a copy of Bodily Harm, which I had never heard of, in my local secondhand book shop.

The story follows Rennie, a Canadian journalist who travels to the Caribbean Island of St Antoine to write a light travel feature. Rennie is in a state of what might reasonably be described as post-traumatic shock – she has had cancer and is recovering from a mastectomy and also a traumatic break-in.

The island, in the middle of a political upheaval, turns out to be the last place she needs to be. Elections are in the works and locals stand around watching tourists, suspicious of all comers. Rennie unwittingly gets drawn into the political scheming of the mysterious Dr Minnow and the ‘Prince of Peace’ via the rather tragic Lora.

She also meets Paul, an attractive man who is engaged in some sort of illicit work that he won’t reveal. Various other players, who may or may not be CIA, come and go.

The story climaxes in the confusion of violence and unrest resulting from the election and Lora and Rennie, unable to prove their innocence, find themselves in a scary situation that only Lora seems able to extract them from.

The strongest parts of this story are the telling of Rennie and Lora’s back stories.

Rennie sees herself as damaged goods, especially after her boyfriend has cut and run after the surgery, unable to deal with the implications of what she’s been through. She has grown up in a family that prized respectability and decency above all else, so when she most needs the love and support of her family, she’s abandoned them too long to get any comfort there.

Lora is a tragic character, the very epitome of the flashy and cheap people Rennie’s severe family so distain. Lora relates her own back story, of the mother who longs to escape the dreary apartment she shares with Lora’s step-father Bob. Lora’s mother follows one hopeless get-rich scheme after another. They both hate it but don’t know how to escape: the toilet with the red stains down the back, and the smell of the kitty litter.

There’s some great, though now dated – the book was published in 1981 – observations about men who are more interested in discovering their identity than sex, with Rennie’s comic friend Jocasta lamenting the loss of a time when it was just ‘about them wanting sex and us withholding it’.

The atmosphere Atwood creates just drips with the heat of the Caribbean – ‘flamboyant red and pink flowers dangling from them like Kleenex flowers at the high-school dance’.

But unfortunately the political turmoil that drives the suspense just didn’t work for me. I just didn’t care enough about the interactions with the locals and somehow the danger Rennie was in didn’t feel real.

 

There’s plenty of Atwood’s great writing in here and the characterisations are spot on as usual but the suspense of political upheaval on a tropical outpost seems to miss the mark.

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