When I received this book from the publisher I was nervous to start it. I didn’t want to not like it. What was I thinking? I believe I could be holed up in a room with nothing but Margaret Atwood to read for a long time and be perfectly content.
If you decide to pick up these nine new tales by Margaret Atwood you will not be disappointed. These stories have something for everyone and are thoroughly enjoyable. They are sad, happy, funny, bizarre, mysterious, creepy, and fantastical. They include a fantasy writer who talks to her dead husband, an aging poet who wishes he could still ‘get it up’, a faked death, a perfectly preserved bridegroom, a dead hand with a mind of it’s own, life in a retirement home, and an older woman with a painful past and a 1.9 billion-year-old weapon.
The first three stories are linked. They include several characters from a circle of artists and writers who hung out together in the 60s. They are all growing older and taking a look back on their lives. My favourite of these is Alphinland. Constance, a fantasy writer, has just lost her husband, but she can still hear him talking to her. As she adjusts to her new circumstances, she finds increasing solace in her fantasy world of Alphinland. What I love most about this story are the parts that focus on her present life. In the middle of an ice-storm she feels the need to go out on her own (with her husband’s voice to guide her) to get provisions for the storm.
The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning; there’s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies.
She breathes in the cold air; pellets of blown ice whip against her face. The wind’s getting up, as the TV said it would. Nonetheless there’s something brisk about being out in the storm, something energizing: it whisks away the cobwebs, it makes you inhale.
Losus Naturae is both dark and bizarre. An innocent little girl grows into a ‘freak of nature’, and her family has to decide what to do with her.
The Freeze-Dried Groom starts off with a couple’s domestic troubles, but then goes deeper into the husband’s background and psyche (he likes to imagine himself as a murder victim). In the end, he may get his wish. I love the humour at the beginning of the story.
Before she finally cut him off, Gwyneth was in the habit of changing the bottom sheet to signal that at long last she was about to dole him out some thin-lipped, watery, begrudging sex on a pristine surface. Then she’d change the sheet again right afterwards to reinforce the message that he, Sam, was a germ-ridden, stain-creating, flea-bitten waste of her washing machine.
I Dream of Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth brings back characters from The Blind Assassin. Charis, Tony, and Roz have been friends for a long time. In this story they look back on certain events that have happened in their lives, particularly for Charis. Charis believes her dog, Ouida, may be possessed by Zenia’s spirit. What I love about this story is that they are all together still, having fun.
They seem to have thrown away all the maturity and experience and wisdom they’ve collected like Air Miles over their middle years; just tossed them out, in favour of irresponsible buttery and salty munching and cheesy, adrenaline-soaked time wasting.
In The Dead Hand Loves You, Jack writes a horror novel after signing a contract with his roommates that entitles them each to a quarter of the money he makes from the book. He signed it out of desperation at the time, but it ends up being the bane of his existence. How to end the contract once and for all? I think Atwood had fun with this one, making up the story within the story.
The pretend lover was called Roland. There was a real Roland, who had been an earlier admirer of Violet’s, though an unsuccessful one. Violet had preferred handsome William to him, and no wonder, because Roland was not only a yawn-making economist, but a mean-minded, shrivel-souled, corkscrew-hearted prick, sort of like Rod with his greenish-brown notebook. He was a dork, a dink, a dong…
This sounded too musical, so Jack scratched it out. Then he went into a caffeine-induced reverie: why should the male member be used as a term of abuse? No man hated his own dorkdinkdong, quite the opposite. But maybe it was an affront that any other man had one. That must be the truth.
Stone Mattress may have been my favourite, but it really is hard to choose just one. “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” All she wanted was a vacation. But, when she bumps into a man from her distant past, her plans change. Will she seek retribution, or will she have a change of heart?
She’s not extravagant or greedy, she tells herself: all she ever wanted was to be protected by layer upon layer of kind, soft, insulating money, so that nobody and nothing could get close enough to harm her.
In Torching the Dusties, we turn to life in a Retirement home. When a crowd of young demonstrators show up at the front gates, the residents are happy to have some excitement in their lives, not being able to imagine the horror of what could actually happen.
A news report adds little to what they already know: Our Turn is a movement, it’s international, it appears aimed at clearing away what one of the demonstrators refers to as “the parasitic dead wood at the top” and another one terms “the dustballs under the bed.”
How she wishes she could see this! It’s like a football game, back when she was an undergraduate! The tension, the opposing teams, the megaphones. She was always in the audience, never in the game, because girls did not play football: their role was to gasp. And to be fuzzy about the rules, as she is now.
Whether because it was the last, or for some other reason, this story has stuck with me the longest. I can picture the Retirement home my own grandparents lived in, similar to this one. But I could never have imagined a group of people with the beliefs of the Our Turn movement. I guess that is why we have writers like Margaret Atwood to imagine them for us.
Overall, this collection of stories offers us perspectives on aging; coming to the end of our lives and looking back with satisfaction or regret; thoughts of retribution or forgiveness, as most of the characters in these stories were still holding onto some kind of grudge from the past; grieving what is lost (sex drive, eyesight, independence, beauty); and comparisons of the past with the present.
Things are getting out of hand… The crazed weather. The vicious hate-filled politics. The myriad glass high-rises going up like 3-D mirrors, or siege engines. The municipal garbage collection: Who can keep all those different-coloured bins straight? Where to put the clear plastic food containers, and why isn’t the little number on the bottom a reliable guide? … And the vampires. You used to know where you stood with them – smelly, evil, undead – but now there are virtuous vampires, and sexy vampires and glittery vampires, and none of the old rules about them are true any more. Once, you could depend on garlic, and on the rising sun, and on crucifixes. You could get rid of the vampires once and for all. But not any more.
If you haven’t guessed already, I highly recommend this book. Here are a few more quotes to leave you with, just in case I haven’t included enough yet.
It’s a lifelong failing: she has never been prepared. But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything?
How to convey the mix of longing, wistfulness, and muted regret that he feels? His regret is that he isn’t a lecherous old man, but he wishes he were. He wishes he still could be. How to describe the deliciousness of ice-cream when you can no longer taste it?
He drowned his sorrows, though like other drowned things they had a habit of floating to the surface when least expected.
Check out these other reviews of Stone Mattress:
* I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.