MARM 2018: Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood

My contribution to Margaret Atwood Reading Month

“…almost nobody here is who they say they are at first. They aren’t even who somebody else thinks they are. In this place you get at least three versions of everything, and if you’re lucky one of them is true. That’s if you’re lucky.”

BODILY HARM COVEROnce more I abandon myself into the accomplished hands of Margaret Atwood – on this occasion for Margaret Atwood Reading Month, an annual celebration by those in the book blogging community who admire her work.

For this event I scoured my shelves for an Atwood novel I had yet to read, eventually alighting upon a 1981 political thriller; a book apparently informed by a visit the author made to the West Indies in 1980, which enabled her to spend time on Saint Vincent listening to tales of dubious goings-on.

Bodily Harm tells the story of Rennie Wilford, a young journalist specializing in fashion and lifestyle pieces who accepts a ‘fun in the sun’ type assignment on the Caribbean island of St Antoine. Having recently lived through a shattering experience that is still at the forefront of her mind, she hopes a working holiday will allow her to make a break from her past and recuperate in a peaceful and stress-free environment.

It takes little time for the naive Rennie to find herself embroiled in a deadly world of corruption, treachery and brutality where nobody is who they claim to be. From the fishy politician Dr Minnow who tells her “blood is news”, to the over-friendly Laura, and the “burnt-out Yankee” Paul, whom she suspects of smuggling dope, everyone she meets appears to be implicated in something unsavoury, and they all have an opinion about her ‘real’ motives for being there. St Antoine, it seems, is more abode of the damned than tropical paradise.

As we have come to expect from Atwood, she writes here with wit, irony and intelligence. Rennie’s story is delivered in fragments, some of which advance the plot while others are rendered in flashbacks to her past. Although, in my opinion, Bodily Harm isn’t one of her great novels, it is nevertheless a well-crafted, highly readable exploration of lust for sexual and political power; and the ending, despite a certain ambiguity, is far from dissatisfying.

For those who enjoy such details: I acquired my green-spined Virago Modern Classics copy of this novel for £3.00 from Oxfam. It was in a very good condition with only the name of one previous owner (“Helen Jones 21.5.88”) inscribed on the first page. The front cover shows Pablo Picasso’s ‘La Lecture (1934)’.


NB Margaret Atwood Reading Month is a literary event organized by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at BuriedInPrint. Throughout the month of November participants read and review Atwood’s work (including her journalism, fiction, poetry and comics), take part in planned events or simply concentrate on a single piece of her writing.


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23 replies

  1. I read this years ago and only remember a few details – I’d like to re-read it. I remember thinking as you do, that it’s not one of her strongest but still a good read. Lovely green Virago 🙂

  2. This is one of the first of her books which I read and I don’t remember much at all. In fact, if I had read your review without any identifying details, I don’t even think I’d’ve remembered reading that story you’ve described (a fault of my memory, not your description)! So I doubly enjoyed reading your review. I’m rereading an older one this month myself, Life before Man (and similarly feeling it’s a fresh read, although I know it’s not)!

    • Oh, I know that feeling so well, Marcie (my memory is atrocious). While it would be difficult to forget those handmaids or Grace Marks, for example, this one probably isn’t quite so memorable – although, it’s a thoroughly good read for all that!

  3. I don’t believe I’ve read Bodily Harm, yet Rennie Wilford’s name sounds very familiar. Maybe I’ve just read things that have mentioned her character.
    This is one of the books, when I was looking through all the covers, whose covers intrigued me. The title, too.. It makes me want to know what “harm” is being done. Do you think the Picasso painting fits the story?

    • I came across Bodily Harm accidentally while rummaging through a pile of second-hand books. The green Virago spine attracted me initially, so I was delighted to discover it was an Atwood novel to boot (albeit one with which I was unfamiliar).

      The cover is indeed intriguing. On the back of my copy it says: ‘”La Lecture” by Pablo Picasso.’ Out of curiosity I Googled the title and found that it was a depiction of the artist’s mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, asleep with a book on her lap (painted in 1932, aka ‘Reading’). However, when I looked more closely, I realised that all the links leading to this artwork showed a completely different Picasso picture of a woman reading. In fact, the one used on the cover appeared to be of two women reading (although, it isn’t always easy to tell with Picasso). I couldn’t believe Virago had made an error, so I searched using variations of words and translations, eventually finding it listed as ‘La Lecture (1934)’. How confusing!

      I haven’t so far discovered anything about this obviously far less famous painting, but I’ll keep looking. 🧐

  4. I didn’t know Atwood had ever written a political thriller – sounds intriguing!

  5. This was one of the Atwoods I read longer ago than I care to acknowledge so I remember nothing about it! I spent a few years commuting by train – only 25 minutes each way but I got a lot of reading done and the local library was well stocked with Atwood novels…. 🙂

  6. It is a very long time since I read this one, I had forgotten everything about it. I love Atwood’s writing, and I am tempted to go back and re-read those novels I read twenty five plus years ago, one day soon. I am currently reading Life Before Man, and enjoying it very much.

  7. Wow! First of all, I’m not acquainted with Atwood, I just did a quick and unfair read of her Handmaid’s Tale, but I’m glad to see she has many fans, and I’m pleased to read what you wrote about Bodily Harm.

    I’m one that loves those details, great price and great finding.

  8. Atwood never fails to surprise me. I would add this to my TBR. As much as I would like to take part in the Atwood month challenge, I couldn’t find time. I will get to it soon.


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