Books

Margaret Atwood's 10 essential books

Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's best known and most prolific writers. These are the must-read works from the Canadian icon's long career.
Margaret Atwood will turn 80 on Nov. 18, 2019. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's best known and most prolific writers. She has written more than 40 books in nearly all literary forms including short stories, nonfiction, children's books and stage. Her most recent book, The Testaments, has broken Canadian sales records and was named the co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize.

Atwood will turn 80 on Nov. 18, 2019. 

CBC Books has put together an essential Atwood reading list: the 10 must-read books from her decades-long career.

The Circle Game (1964)

Margaret Atwood first earned attention as a young poet in the 1960s. (CBC Archives/Extension, House of Anansi Press)

Atwood released her first full-length poetry book titled The Circle Game in 1964. The collection addresses love, vulnerability, morality and technology — all themes that she would continue to explore in her later work.

With The Circle Game, Atwood won her first major literary prize: the 1966 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. The book officially marked her arrival on the Canadian literature scene.

The Edible Woman (1969)

Margaret Atwood appears on CBC TV's Extension on July 23, 1967. (McClelland & Stewart, CBC Archives/Extension)

Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, was released in Canada in 1969. The Edible Woman uses elements of the surreal as it follows a young woman named Marian whose engagement sets off an increasingly bizarre series of events, which include the loss of her ability to eat.

Production company Entertainment One picked up the television rights to The Edible Woman, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2019. 

Survival (1972)

July 22, 1973, Margaret Atwood was the subject and interviewee on CBC's Impressions, with host Ramsay Cook. (CBC Archives/Impressions, A List)

In 1972, Atwood published Survival, her first work of criticism. The book represents a detailed analysis of Canadian literature — its strengths and weaknesses — in an attempt to understand what made the country's writing unique.

Survival became a bestseller and at the time was required reading for literature students across the country.

The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

In 1986, Margaret Atwood discussed the international success of novel The Handmaid's Tale on CBC's The National. (McClelland & Stewart, CBC Archives)

Released in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale was Atwood's breakthrough book on an international scale. The modern classic tells the story of a Handmaid known as Offred who is trapped in a society where her only purpose is to conceive and bear the child of a powerful man.

The Handmaid's Tale won Atwood her second Governor General's Literary Award and scored her first nomination for the Booker Prize. It has since undergone several adaptations, for film, stage, ballet, opera and most recently, TV and graphic novel. A sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, The Testaments, was released in September 2019.

Cat's Eye (1988)

Margaret Atwood, shown here in a 1987 CBC News interview, is the author of novel Cat's Eye. (CBC Archives, Emblem Editions)

Published in 1988, the novel Cat's Eye tells the story of a semi-famous Canadian painter named Elaine Risley who is haunted by her girlhood best friend and bully, Cordelia. Covering a timeframe of the Second World War era to the late 1980s, the novel explores the dynamic between art and science, looking at themes such as feminism, religion and identity.

Atwood earned her second consecutive Booker Prize nomination and Governor General's Literary Award for fiction nomination for Cat's Eye.

The Robber Bride (1993)

The Robber Bride is a novel by Margaret Atwood. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press, McClelland & Stewart)

The Robber Bride is a work of speculative fiction that was published in 1993. The novel, which alternates between the present and flashbacks, is an incisive look at feminism, morality and gender relationships in contemporary Toronto.

It earned Atwood a nomination for the 1994 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Alias Grace (1996)

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood won the Giller in 1996. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press, McClelland & Stewart)

Alias Grace, which was originally published in 1996, is based on the true story of Grace Marks, a young Irish immigrant and servant in Upper Canada who is accused of murdering her employer in 1843. Alias Grace represents Atwood's fascination with the tale after reading author Susanna Moodie's account of the murders in the 1853 book, Life in the Clearing.

Alias Grace won Atwood her first — and only to date — Giller Prize in 1996. It was also a finalist for several other major awards, including the Man Booker Prize.

The Blind Assassin (2000)

The Blind Assassin is a novel by Margaret Atwood. (Alastair Grant/Canadian Press, McClelland & Stewart)

Released in 2000, The Blind Assassin is Atwood's 10th novel. The family drama spans the decades between the First World War and the present and uses several literary techniques — including an unreliable narrator, multiple storylines and a novel-within-a-novel — to tell a disturbing tale of love, greed and revenge.

The Blind Assassin won the Man Booker Prize in 2000.

Oryx and Crake (2003)

Oryx and Crake is a novel by Margaret Atwood. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press, Vintage Canada)

Released in 2003, Oryx and Crake is the first book in Margaret Atwood's dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. The book explores scientific ethics and the potential effects of genetic experimentation, pharmaceutical engineering and environmental collapse.

Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize when it was published in 2003, and was a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004. It was a contender for Canada Reads 2005, when it was defended by Olivia Chow.

The Testaments (2019)

Margaret Atwood is the author of The Testaments. (Alastair Grant/Canadian Press, McClelland & Stewart)

The Testaments is a sequel to Atwood's iconic 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale. It is set 15 years after the original and contains the explosive testaments of three women, who discuss the architecture of Gilead.

The Testaments was on the longlist for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was the co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize alongside British author Bernardine Evaristo. 

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