Bodily Harm is not one of Atwood’s most known novels but it is certainly the most striking.
It follows the protagonist (and sometimes narrator) Rennie who flies to the Caribbean, St Antoine, for an escape disguised as work on a travel piece. But St Antoine is no place for an escape.
Back in Canada, Rennie had a stalker who left a rope on her bed, an ex who is a sadomasochist, a doctor who she has fallen in love with because he saved her life from cancer. And let’s not ignore the consistent sexism — so the desire to escape only seems natural.
But in St Antoine tension is rising. Britain has left and an election is underway. As a journalist, some think she is a spy. Others want her to cover the election. But Rennie only does travel writing. Through this exploration, Atwood questions whether journalism is always political? Because Rennie cannot seem to have a meal without politics weaving itself in.
The novel starts: “This is how I got here, says Rennie”. Where is here? Spoiler: here is an awful jail in St Antoine. She unintentionally got caught up in politics and the final chapters are the novel are some of the most difficult I’ve had to read yet.
This is a piece of work that focuses on the lust for power in many different ways, but most prominently sexually and politically. Rennie has been abused in so many ways; even by herself (and it begs the question of whether she desires punishment). She is addicted to negative relationships.
The characters in this novel are interesting. They are really hard to connect to. None of them are exactly good; they’re morally grey so to say. And Rennie herself does some pretty stupid things so it’s hard to be empathetic. But with her past and internal monologue, would suggest that her actions convey those of the depressed.
There is such a clear dichotomy between the bodies of men and women in this novel. Men’s bodies are active and women’s are passive is what Atwood chooses to preface the novel with John Berger. It’s an incredibly physical novel. The mental is always related to the physical. To feel something, to hold the abstract concept of power Rennie wants her body to be able to have sex again. Daniel, her doctor, tells her that if she is negative cancer will flourish.
Bodily Harm is not a novel to read on vacation — but is any Atwood? Nonetheless, it’s an essential read if you want to understand a glimpse into the brutality a woman and her body face.