Margaret Atwood does not so much write short stories as tell tales.
That much is clear from the outset of Stone Mattress, her first collection for eight years. These nine stories – by turns magical, vengeful and folkloric – owe far more to fairy tale tradition than to real life.
“At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple,” begins the title story. Verna is, as are so many Atwood heroines, a wronged woman. One who thinks she has long since surmounted the wrong, until, on an Arctic cruise, she encounters her teenage rapist 50 years on (“Mr Heartthrob, Mr Senior Football Star, Mr Astounding Catch … Mr Shit”). Once the opportunity presents itself, “Mr Shit” gets his long overdue comeuppance.
Retribution, strong women, otherworldly happenings – all the Atwood hallmarks are here. What’s new is Atwood’s fierce and fearless take on ageing. In “I Dream of Zenia With The Bright Red Teeth”, Atwood revisits the characters of her 1993 bestseller, The Robber Bride, in their dotage. Charis (“No longer an old street bat in training”), Tony (“In her twenties, Tony looked like a pixie. She still does, but a freeze-dried pixie”), and Roz (“Shoes once played a major part in Roz’s life … but toe-gnarling and bunions have put paid to that”).
But the stars are the triptych of stories that open this collection. “Alphinland”, “Revenant” and “Dark Lady” centre around a distant love triangle from the vantage point of old age. Constance, now the wildly successful writer of the Alphinland fantasies, wreaks her revenge through her writing. As she sprinkles a breadcrumb path of her dead husband’s ashes to find her way home through a snow storm, we encounter her faithless ex, Gavin. Now old and impotent, he is incarcerated in Alphinland while the Dark Lady of his youthful infidelities, Jorrie, is “immobilized by runic spells inside a stone beehive”.
Subtle? Maybe not. But they are, without exception, razor sharp, with Atwood’s gimlet eye for the ludicrousness of modern life: HDTV, video games and Twilight-esque vampires all come in for a pasting.
The phrase “Grande Dame” invariably accompanies Atwood’s name. To judge by her take on the ageing process, it is not a description that will please her. But if a Grande Dame is a woman of talent and experience, operating at the height of her skills, then she should not be too chagrined.