In Old Babes in the Wood, Margaret Atwood delivers her signature sci-fi with a human heart. It is a story collection that teems with playfulness and invention, from a snail-soul’s sudden ascension into the body of a young customer service representative in “Metempsychosis”, to a posthumous conversation with George Orwell in “The Dead Interview”.

The book is Atwood’s first return to fiction since 2019’s The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale which jointly won the Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Reminding us of her skill in the short form, it is bookended by the ostensibly realist story of a long-term couple. We meet Tig and Nell in its opening section and again in its third, final part, which explores Nell’s pain in the aftermath of Tig’s death: “No stars, not for you, not ever, she mourns. And in the next breath: Don’t be so fucking maudlin”. The book is dedicated to Atwood’s partner Graeme Gibson who died in 2019 and it is this last section that feels most acute and emotionally fluent, with beautiful insight on feelings — the ones we want to have, and those that insist on being had instead.

Sandwiched between these sections is a miscellaneous, enjoyably eclectic collection of stories. Fantasy provides a convenient remove from which to tackle somewhat raw topics and Atwood capitalises on this. “Freeforall”, for instance, taps into our recent experience with contagion and quarantine: it is set in a world where a virulent STD has infused any physical contact with life-or-death levels of risk.

“Airborne”, meanwhile, injects the culture wars with nuance and empathy. Here, a committee of “old feminists” have assembled to write some kind of proposal together, but one of their number has fallen foul of the new generation of activists. “We’re in the middle of a regime change, like the French Revvie. Wake up one morning, use yesterday’s password, off with your head”, says committee member Leonie, only to be tempered by fellow academic Myrna, who reminds her of their own zeal, way-back-when: “We defenestrated a few old fogies [ourselves], one way or another”.

Like Leonie and Myrna, most of Old Babes’s characters are entering their senior years. For the most part, ageing is framed as a blessing. “Remember what hell it was being young?”, thinks Leonie. “It was nice at times. Though I don’t miss PMS,” says her friend Chrissie. But it brings with it an unavoidable drift from the zeitgeist as well as its vocabulary. As Nell writes to a friend, “for youngsters, things were always called what they are called right now, but for oldsters, not. We notice the gaps, the chasms”.

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Such fissures are a recurring theme in Old Babes, but as we’re told by the narrator of “Impatient Griselda” – a story about an alien tasked with retelling human fairytales – “storytelling does help us understand one another across our social and historical and evolutionary chasms, don’t you think?”

Atwood certainly seems to. As the book draws to a close, grieving Nell finds a note written by Tig about how to use mosquito nets: “She’ll take this piece of paper back to the city, but what will she do with it there? What does one ever do with these cryptic messages from the dead?” Across time and space, species and generations, Atwood’s characters reach out to one another, all in the name of collapsing physical as well as emotional distances – even those that feel most untraversable.

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood is out now (Chatto & Windus, £22)

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