Rating: 4 stars
I love Margaret Atwood. She is my literary goddess. Although I blithely say that Haruki Murakami is my favourite author, and that’s true because he’s the only author whose works I will buy immediately because I can’t bear waiting for the paperback release, it’s a close-run thing with Ms Atwood. She has been in my life since I was a teenager, and read The Edible Woman. I have read almost all of her novels, and a handful of her short story collections. I wrote an essay about her for a booklet published by my local library service in 1999 for International Women’s Week. I’m shameless, so I’ll add it at the end of this review.
It’s almost a year since I read anything by Ms Atwood, and I saw Stone Mattress on the shelf in my local library, where I was carrying out a random hit and run selection on the As (that garnered me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, someone I’ve never read before).
What I like about Margaret Atwood’s short stories is that she understands the format. She knows that it’s not for throwaway ideas that might or might not be worked into novels. She understands that the reader still needs to feel drawn in by the story, and satisfied by its ending. Not all writers have the skill to craft a truly good short story, but Margaret Atwood does. Whether it’s 50 pages or 10, she gives you everything you need to know to make the story real.
Stone Mattress starts with a suite of three interconnected stories about a writer, a poet and the woman who came between them. None of the characters is particularly likeable, but Atwood’s mischievous sense of humour makes reading about them very entertaining. It’s a bit of a theme throughout the collection, that unlikeability. Atwood has a spiky tongue when she needs it. She’s never mean, though. She’s merely observant of human nature and what people are really like under their veneer of civility. And also what their vulnerabilities are beneath their carapace of unlikeability.
The theme running through the stories is the difficulty of getting along with other people. More specifically, and as a quote from a review in the Independent newspaper on the cover of the paperback version I read almost says, it’s about getting to a certain point in life where there are people in our lives that we’d really rather weren’t there, and being prepared to go to the ultimate length for them not to be there any longer. Some of the stories are enigmatic, full of suspense, and you’re left not knowing what will happen, but in a wrigglingly delicious way.
My favourite story in the book is the shortest. Lusus Naturae is a funny, bittersweet tale. It didn’t need to be longer than its 10 pages. Everything was there. The innocent childhood, the difficult teenage years, the misunderstanding, the inevitable end. I want to quote from it, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it.
It was a nice surprise to re-encounter some old friends from The Robber Bride, in the middle of the collection. I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth brings us up to date with Tony, Roz and Charis in one of the milder stories in the book.
The title story had an unusual effect – it had me rooting for someone about to commit a murder. The final tale in the collection was sobering. An almost dystopia, it speaks of the fate that a lot of people are already facing, and took it a step further. That’s something else Atwood does well. At each stage of her life, she distills the world she is experiencing to produce the essence of the things that matter. This collection of stories has a second theme of aging. It examines how to age with dignity, and whether it is necessary or right to address past events. And linked to aging is memory, how it fades as we grow older, and we begin the refrain, “It’ll come back to me later,” and then begin to wonder whether it’s something more.
I enjoyed this collection. It isn’t my favourite of the short story collections I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. That honour goes to Wilderness Tips. Still, it was a change from reading novels, and has put me in a good frame of mind for my next read.
And now, here is my vanity moment. The essay I wrote for the 1999 booklet put out by my local library service, as explanation for why I love Margaret Atwood. Some readers will have seen this before, elsewhere.
I like so many women authors. How is it possible to choose? Different authors for different things – one for escaping, one for thinking, one for existing in another time or place. If I had to choose one that manages to satisfy on all three counts, I would have to choose Margaret Atwood.
How can you put a finger on what makes you like something? Margaret Atwood understands two things important in a novel – she understands how to use language to its fullest extent; she also understands what it is to be human. She mixes the two things well.
She takes you on a journey. It’s not just about reading a story. It forces you to think about yourself, your own life, the lives of other people. Some of her stories are horrific, but then you get to thinking that somewhere, someone could be living that horror. Some of her stories explore the bizarre. They open up to inspection how our minds work – how we internalise and externalise experience. She also spins a good yarn! So it can be just about reading a good story.
Someone* once said that music can exist on more than one level – it can be like wall-paper: there to look at while you do the washing up; or it can be something deeper, something that challenges the way you think. I think novels are the same. I think Margaret Atwood understands that. That’s why she is one of my favourite women authors.
*It was Michael Stipe.