CANADIAN Margaret Atwood is one of the most acclaimed and prolific authors of the past 30-plus years, a woman of towering intellect and imagination.
Best known for such genre-crossing novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin, she has also earned plaudits as a poet and essayist.
Stone Mattress, her ninth collection of short fiction and her 55th book, is typically compelling. Full to brimming with a dust-dry wit and thrilling, punchline sentences, eclectic in its plots but enriched by overarching themes, Stone Mattress’ stories should, says Atwood, be categorised as ‘tales’, because they owe a debt to folklore and because they shouldn’t be considered in any way true.
The opening triptych is a tour de force. In ‘Alphinland’, Constance, a recently widowed writer of a hugely successful fantasy series, battles an ice storm and her slipping mind.
She is haunted by her dead husband, and by memories of her first love, a wastrel poet named Gavin, and of Marjorie, the woman for whom he’d cast her aside. ‘Revenant’ focuses on Gavin, now old and several times remarried, retired to Florida, having long since found fame through his writing. An attractive young PhD student, Naveena, comes to interview him, but the subject of her thesis is actually his old lover, Constance (known to the world as CW Starr).
And in ‘Dark Lady’, Marjorie, or Jorrie, who’d inspired Gavin’s career-making collection of poems, reads in the newspaper of his death, and convinces herself that she has to attend the funeral. With their crackling dialogue and skilful time-tumbles, these ‘tales’ of cruelty and regret are beautifully rendered, funny and alive, unflinching in their portrayals of the ageing process and unexpectedly poignant.
The book’s six remaining tales have no such neat interconnections, but, for the most part, also entice. In ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’, Sam, whose marriage is on the rocks, makes his living blindly buying job lots at auctions, with a nice sideline in smuggled powder.
But when he cracks open the crates on his latest haul, he discovers an entire packed-up wedding set, complete with frozen groom. Then, a woman turns up: the bride, offering to pay ‘anything’ to get her stuff back.
And in ‘The Dead Hand Loves You’, the pick of the collection, four college students share an old building and spend much of their energy partying. One of them, Jack Dace, is writing a novel and, when he falls behind on his rent, he agrees to cover his debt by dividing any potential earnings from the book in equal quarter shares. The book, which he churns out as pulp fiction, upsets the others, because they see themselves in the characters, but it goes on to earn the status of international horror classic and is adapted twice for the big screen. And no-one refuses the money.
But as the decades pass, Jack finds himself growing more and more bitter.
And in the title story, ‘Verna’, a widow in her 60s is on a cruise, and thinking about possibly opening her life up to a man again.
Then, she meets Bob Goreham. They’d met previously, though he doesn’t remember. She does, because that long-ago moment ruined her life.
Stone Mattress is a revenge fantasy, and Atwood gives us the goods right from the first sentence: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” If that doesn’t entice you to read on, then nothing will.
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