“Death by Landscape,” Margaret Atwood

“Death by Landscape,” by Margaret Atwood
From, Wilderness Tips, Anchor (1998)
Literary Fiction
Rating 5/5

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In this story, Atwood examines a coming-of-age moment gone wrong. She pulls upon the levers of independence and liberation and batters them with the notion that there will always be experiences outside of our control. The story features a woman named Lois, who is old enough that her children are grown and that she is a widow, but she is consumed by a moment that happened when she was a teenager at summer camp. This obsession manifests itself in the form of an art collection that she has arranged on the walls of her retirement apartment to look like a European gallery. All of the art features vast landscapes and vistas, but when Lois looks at the paintings all she can see is the thousands of places that represent a traumatic moment at summer camp.

If you are familiar at all with Atwood’s work then the poetic prose will not come as any surprise to you. That is not to say that this story feels dense or hard to follow, but that it is not negligent when it comes to the details. Through language, it does a great job of portraying Lois’s connection to nature, both when she is a child, and after the story’s climax. This culminates in a disquieting portrayal of Lois’s trauma that makes this tale feel very much like a ghost story, though there are no obvious supernatural elements. Atwood’s use of language is masterful in this one, and worth studying. 

The narrative of this story focuses on two characters with similar names, Lois and her best friend (during the summer at least) Lucy. Though Lois and Lucy are cut from the same cloth, Lois defines them by the ways that they are different—for instance a maid is at Lucy’s house every day of the week and only at Lois’s house a few days a week. When they go the greater portion of the year without seeing one another, Lois is shocked to see how much Lucy has changed, but is sure that she has not changed—or that she could not possibly have changed as much as Lucy. While Lois looks past the similarities of her and her summer best friend, when Lucy is absent from her life it becomes so much of a  burden to her that she feels that she must live for that absence. What I can’t help but to keep considering is where Lois’s emotions are truly eminentaing from.

Another piece of this story that I cannot keep myself from mulling over and over again is the way expectations play out against reality. While it is not a prominent feature of this story, it is one of its many layers, and one that speaks to me on the most personal level. At thirteen, like so many adolescents, Lois’s life has been about structure and control—which has seemingly never been hers. The canoe trip—which is meant to be the climax of her camp experience and symbolize her passage into adulthood and responsibility—merely presents the illusion of breaking out of this pattern, but at thirteen Lois cannot see this. When the canoe trip gets ruined, Lois seemingly becomes trapped in that gray space that the river represented between her childhood and adulthood.

If you’re looking for a story that will bleed into the cracks of your mind and stick with you, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story that twists a coming of age moment and turns it on its head, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a ghost story that is more psychological than supernatural, this story is for you.  

Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “Hello Scotland,” by EF with this post.

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