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Margaret Atwood: Life Before Man

The opening quote from the Finnish paleontologist, Björn Kurtén: Instead of a part of the organism itself, the fossil may be some kind of record of its presence, such as a fossilized track or burrow gives a clue as to where this book is going. Many readers have assumed that this novel is simply a love triangle story. It is that, of course, telling the story of Elizabeth, her husband, Nate, and Lesje, Nate’s lover. The story is told from the perspective of each of three protagonists and starts shortly after Chris, Elizabeth’s lover, has committed suicide. The fossil bit comes in on two levels. At the plot level, Elizabeth and Lesje work in a museum and Lesje is a paleontologist, specializing in dinosaurs (with which she finds more affinity than she does with humans – the opening line about her states Lesje is wandering in prehistory and goes on say how she is so totally involved in the world of dinosaurs that the modern world seems to pass her by). Lesje does have a boyfriend – William, a good man but boring.

These three characters try to be in control of their fate but, as other Atwood protagonists, their lives are essentially determined by forces outside their control – others, of course, but also their parents, and events, in short by the records left in us by the fossils. They all try to be something else – Lesje, a dinosaur lover, Nate, a toy maker and Elizabeth, a mother, a feeling person, but they remain essentially fossils – before man.

Publishing history

First published 1979 by McClelland & Stewart