A remarkable decision by the British authors Bob Harris and Margaret Atwood was to hold their book, Trouble in Mind, up in 2017 to reflect the passing of two full decades since it was originally published. And the story that follows — of Alec Travis, a young aristocrat, who gets divorced when his wife dies and goes to a nursing home to care for her, and can’t face the fact that he is expected to move back into his family’s prestigious house — remains just as relevant and urgent now as it was at the time when it was first published.
In this extraordinarily dark, confronting and moving book, Atwood turns the emphasis on Alec rather than on his ex-wife Doris, who appears throughout the tale only as a voice in Alec’s head.
The book was set in a future society, which Atwood presents as almost eerily true to the present. The catastrophe that has occurred, and the world that we have put ourselves into, are both contemporary, and the events all took place some ten years before. The core characters, Alec and Doris, still live in the world of 2017, along with the rest of the book’s characters, except for Alec’s former illegitimate son Dan, who is in hiding.
Underlying the sad story of Alec’s mother, a lost woman unable to bear any more children, is a brutally honest look at the injustices of the world and of people who are too busy being cynical to see that they are being broken for their own good.
In an interview in Time last year, Atwood reflected on the impact of this very personal book, and of her career. She said, “It was a pleasure writing it, and it’s a comfort to know that when I look back on my life, I’ve done well.”
There are many pleasures here in this very well-plotted book. But the best are the great autobiographical details and the observations about life in the Cold War era that set it apart from other novels. A book about estranged parents is rarely a happy one, but In this case, the humorous and insightful observations about the stakes of the plight of the despondent, aged Doris are perhaps the best part of it all.
To read Trouble in Mind is to experience an intimate moment from the stories of a gifted author and delve into the tragic heart of some of our shared shared fears — that the lives of the great are hollowed out by hubris, that the next generation does not have its grandparents’ values and accomplishments.
Photo credit: Muriel Covey