Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces 2004-2021 by Margaret Atwood – review

Whether reflecting on pet preoccupations or the pressing issues of the day, the novelist remains a bold and fascinating thinker

Margaret Atwood was recently described in a Guardian interview as “arguably the most famous living literary novelist in the world”, and she is undoubtedly the most venerable. In the Introduction to Burning Questions, her third collection of essays and nonfiction pieces, spanning the years 2004 to 2021, she laments, with her characteristically tongue-in-cheek style, her much-lauded productivity: “Looking back at my sporadic, badly-kept and not very informative journals, I notice that one of the leitmotifs is a constant moaning about taking on too much. ‘This has to stop,’ I find myself saying.”

And yet – thankfully – she hasn’t. One of the most notable aspects of this collection is how engaged Atwood, now 82, has remained with the pressing issues of the day, and how vigorously she continues to pursue the public life of a writer; many of these pieces first took the form of speeches. When her long-term partner, Graeme Gibson, died during her 2019 tour for The Testaments, she carried on with her international speaking commitments – a decision of which she writes, “given a choice between hotel rooms and events and people on the one hand, and an empty house and a vacant chair on the other, which would you have chosen, Dear Reader?” In tribute to Gibson, the final section of Burning Questions includes the introductions she wrote to reissues of two of his novels, as well as the foreword to his The Bedside Book of Birds.

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