Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2013

Lady Oracle (1976), by Margaret Atwood, read by Lorelei King

Lady OracleMargaret Atwood has just released MaddAddam, the third novel in the dystopian trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake, but I’m not likely to read it.  I did read the first one, back in 2003, but I’m not very interested in dystopian and speculative fiction so I’m hoping that now that the trilogy is out of the way, she’ll revert to writing sparkling novels about the real world.

In the mean time, however, I’ve still got a few of her books to read on my TBR, one of which is Lady Oracle.  I’d forgotten that I had it when I saw the audio book at the library, but I’m not sorry because Lorelei King is one of the best audio book narrators around, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her rendition during my daily commute.

Lady Oracle is Atwood’s second book but it draws on many of the themes that characterise her body of work. I had to retrieve my print copy from the shelf to quote these delicious opening lines, which intrigue the reader from the very first page:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, get flabby, to scroll and festoon life the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls much praised by fashion magazines when I was fifteen.  No trumpets, no megaphones, no spangles, no loose ends, this time.  The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality.  At first I thought I’d managed it.

Joan Foster has a double life that reminds me of Nestor and his alter-ego Oscar in Irma La Douce (a musical that I know from the original sound track, not from the awful film).  While the plot and the character’s motivations are entirely different, the problem is the same: having an alter-ego makes life very complicated and sooner or later the double has to be killed off and order restored.  For Joan, an author of excruciating bodice-rippers on the sly, coming up with the deus ex machina is not too difficult, it’s the other bits and pieces of her life that are tricky.

Although told with Atwood’s trademark black humour, Joan’s back story is a sad and troubled one.  She is obese, friendless, and bullied mercilessly in a way that reminded me straight away of the nastiness of little girls in Cat’s Eye.  (I can’t help but wonder if there are autobiographical issues surfacing in these recurring elements).  Joan’s mother is a social-climbing control-freak who sabotages her daughter’s fragile self-esteem at every opportunity, and her father abandoned them long ago.   When Joan finally makes a break for it, she takes off for London, where she creates a new persona for herself.   At times it’s as if the gothic tales she writes as Louisa Delacourt bleed into her real life.  Her love life includes a gloomy Polish count, a performance artist called ‘The Royal Porcupine’ and her activist husband Arthur whose shenanigans with explosives made me think of the Monty Python’s People’s Front of Judea.

What’s not entirely convincing is that Joan is so self-effacing, she can’t admit to being a successful author of romance because that’s not intellectual enough for the other people in her life.   When one of her childhood tormentors turns up again, Joan says nothing, and it’s not because she’s blotted out the memories.  It seems to me that Atwood has slightly overdone the ‘women pleasing others instead of themselves’ theme, but still, it makes for an entertaining tale.

Author: Margaret Atwood
Title: Lady oracle
Narrated by Lorelei King
Publisher: Chivers Audio Books, 2009, first published 1976
ISBN: 9781408435601
Source: Kingston Library

Lady OracleAvailability

I can’t find any retailer for this audiobook anywhere.  The links below are to print editions.

Fishpond: Lady Oracle


  1. Like you, I am not much interested in Atwood’s dystopian fiction. But I did read all her early and mid-career works and was much impressed at the time.

    I revisited Surfacing earlier this year and was disappointed — it seemed more polemic than anything else. I sense from your review of this one that it held up relatively well. I do plan to reread some more Atwoods (and saving the historical novels for last) — this one or Cat’s Eye is likely next on my list.


    • Hi Kevin, I remember seeing your review of Surfacing in my inbox (part of your 2013 Project, right?) but I didn’t read it because I haven’t read the book yet. My next one is going to be Alias Grace, I’ve been meaning to read it for ages and ages because it’s the last one of hers on my TBR and I made myself a promise that I would not buy any more until I’d read it!


  2. A fine review, Lisa. Margaret Atwood is read all over the blogosphere, except me and I intend to remedy that soonest when I get a novel of hers, but certainly not dystopian. I don’t like that genre. :-)


    • Yes, dystopian seems to be such a love-it-or-hate-it kind of genre.


  3. I ve only read her once and like you a lot of the dystopia fiction doesn’t appeal did win an audiobook of one her recent books I may read at some point ,all the best stu


    • She’s one of those authors whose books work well on audio because she does dialogue so well:)


  4. I adored the Handmaids tale was one of the most moving books I have ever read. On the basis of that love I tried Oryx and Crake but just couldn’t get into it.


    • I read it, but I found it difficult too, and I think I probably wouldn’t have persisted if I hadn’t already read books by her that I’d liked


  5. Thank you so much for your kind comments! That book was a joy to read. :) x


    • Lorelei, I always know that I will enjoy the book if you are the narrator!


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