(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Life Before Man is a nineteenth century novel of manners translated into twentieth century life, a detailed description of sexual manners and mores among several modern couples. Where the earlier form would have been essentially satiric, however, Margaret Atwood’s novel is savage and sad.

The novel is divided into five parts; each part contains from eleven to fourteen short chapters of three to four pages, headed by a character and a date and centering on one of the three main characters. The opening chapter in part 1, for example, is titled “Elizabeth, Friday, October 29, 1976,” and the last chapter of part 5 is “Elizabeth, Friday, August 18,1978.” The novel thus covers nearly two years (including two Nate chapters that are flashbacks to 1975 and 1976). Often, two or three chapters cover the same day, or the same events are being described from the perspectives of Elizabeth, Nate, and/or Lesje.

Given this busy and clever structure, the plot of Life Before Man is really quite thin. Chris, Elizabeth’s former lover, has killed himself a week before the novel opens, and Elizabeth is trying to deal with his death: “I don’t know how I should live,” reads the first line; “I live like a peeled snail.” Chris worked in the same museum of natural history where Elizabeth (in special projects) and Lesje (an assistant paleontologist) still work, and Elizabeth ended the relationship some weeks before (apparently because Chris wanted more than a love affair), but her lover’s shotgun blast has struck her as well, at least figuratively, and she is in shock.

At the same time that Elizabeth has been letting Chris go, Nate has been concluding his affair with Martha, a secretary at the legal firm where he once worked, and is casting...

(The entire section is 731 words.)