A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Margaret Atwood is pretty much my favourite author. She has been since I was recommended The Handmaid’s Tale by my English teacher when I was 16. Since then I’ve read nearly all of her books, and loved most of them. Thankfully her latest collection of short stories – sorry, tales – is no different.
Stone Mattress is subtitled ‘Nine Wicked Tales’, and the use of ‘tales’ is no accident. In the Acknowledgements section, Atwood writes this:
These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. Calling a piece of short fiction a “tale” removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.
Believe me, there is nothing mundane in Stone Mattress. Even the tales that don’t explicitly deal with ideas connected to myth or legend contain extraordinary occurrences. Take the collection’s title story, for instance. In ‘Stone Mattress’, Verna takes the ultimate revenge on a man who ruined her life several decades before, plotting his death among the fossilized stromatolites of the Arctic. Definitely not your average day for a woman in her seventies (I assume). Then there is ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’, in which a man called Sam is on the hunt for furniture to resell as fake antiques. He buys an unclaimed storage locker in an auction and opens it to discover a scene in which Miss Havisham might feel at home: the full regalia of a wedding… including the groom.
The ‘long-ago teller of tales’ in the quotation above might be a description applied to Atwood herself. Excitingly for this Atwood fan, one of the tales in this collection is ‘I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth’, which follows up the main characters from her wonderful 1993 novel The Robber Bride. If you’ve read that novel, you’ll remember that is about three friends – Charis, Tony, and Roz – and their experiences with the mysterious Zenia. Zenia steals men from all three of them, before dying in a way that none of the other three can quite get a handle on. In this new tale, Zenia might be back via the medium of Charis’s new dog. How very Zenia.
My favourite tales, though, are the first three in the collection. They are the interconnected tales of three people: Constance Starr, a novelist famous for her fantasy series Alphinland; Gavin Putnam, a high-brow poet who had been Constance’s boyfriend many years ago; and Marjorie, with whom Gavin had cheated on Constance. These stories are set in the present day, when all three are into their seventies and have lived through many experiences since those heady days back in the Riverboat coffee house. The past is always with them, though, and suddenly events conspire to make all three of them confront the people they were in their twenties.
The main connection between all nine tales in this collection is age. With perhaps one or two exceptions, all of the tales’ protagonists are, like Atwood, in their seventies, and are looking back on lives lived and people known. Many are forced to confront issues from many years previously, proving that just because something happened decades before, it doesn’t mean that they are gone and forgotten.
It is a wonderful collection, one that I could barely put down. Atwood’s strengths as a writer are already well-known: her ability to create something other-worldly out of “normal” life; her characters are all exquisitely drawn and voiced; her understanding of the inner-life is unparalleled. All of these skills are on display here. Stone Mattress is just brilliant. It’s easily the best book I’ve read this year.
Margaret Atwood: Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales (London: Virago, 2015). Paperback, ISBN 9780349006536. RRP £8.99.