Friday, 16 August 2013

MY LITERARY LIFELINES #1

Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman



I first came across The Edible Woman in the mid-eighties. Along with Surfacing and Bodily Harm it was one-third of a triumvirate of Atwood novels that became my student bible. I didn't know, when I picked it up, that it was nearly twenty years old. Written in 1965 and published in 1969, it had been speaking to women for almost two decades. It didn't seem dated, or, if it did, I didn't notice. I simply noticed that it spoke to me, a small-town girl in my late teens, locked in an internal battle between what was expected of me and what I wanted my life to be. (Maybe it appealed because, and I'm extrapolating wildly, it was written by someone in a similar situation - a 23-year-old Canadian woman, pondering her limited choices.) 

My 'who do I want to be when I grow up' angst started young. I was a blocky, freckly ginger kid, a bit too clever for my own good, but not clever enough to keep my mouth shut around people who didn't like that. Even as I longed to have more friends I refused to play along. It didn't make for a front row seat with the popular girls; and even when my mouth didn't get me into trouble, my "bitchy resting face" did.

I was fifteen when I discovered the power of food and suddenly I wasn't blocky any more. Food, my dysfunctional friend, became my wing woman, accompanying me to sixth form and then stowing away with my books and Breville sandwich toaster when I headed to university. She's been there ever since, if I'm honest, although she (unlike me) has mostly learnt to stay silent in recent years. 

It wasn't until I discovered The Edible Woman, during a particularly bad month in a particularly bad year, that I realised what was wrong. The thing I thought was giving me a sliver of control was actually controlling me.

If you're not familiar with it, The Edible Woman tells the story of Marian, a woman determined to be ordinary, to belong, to fit in. She gets engaged, she plans her wedding, she waits for 'normal' to start, until she finds she can literally no longer stomach it. Her inability to eat starts with red meat, when she suddenly finds herself identifying with the steak her fiancé is eating, but soon expands to include vegetables, eggs, cake, everything... Because what Marian thinks she should want, and what she does want are two completely different things. And, as she waits to live the life that's mapped out for her, far from feeling consumed with passion, with enthusiasm for what awaits her, she can't shake the feeling that she's being consumed.

The Edible Woman was the first book I read that made me see that. Our relationship with food is about many things, but what it's not about is eating.

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood is published by Virago, £8.99

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