BOOK REVIEW / The best fears of our lives: 'The Robber Bride' - Margaret Atwood: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

Salman Rushdie
Sunday 17 October 1993 00:02 BST

A BEAUTIFUL, greedy, ruthless devil-woman enters the lives of three other women, exploits them shamelessly, steals their men, gets bored, moves on. Then, apparently, she dies. The three women, all still obsessed by their dead rival, go to her funeral in the spirit in which movie folk once attended the burial of the mogul Cohn, to make sure the bastard was really dead. In spite of this carefulness on the part of the tormented Three, the One comes back to life, appearing to them one day in a restaurant during lunch. Final reckonings are at hand. Men - so easy to lose, so hard to find - are once again at risk. Confrontations occur. Murder is contemplated. And in the end . . . but the end should not be revealed.

Margaret Atwood's new novel is a fairy tale of malicious simplicity. Fay Weldon's She-Devil meets John Updike's Witches of Eastwick, you'd say if you were pitching it for a movie. If the title hadn't already been used, you could call it Women Beware Women. After the dark dystopian fabulism of The Handmaid's Tale and the superb evocation of childhood, family and the past in Cat's Eye, this is a work in lighter vein.

That may seem an odd description of a novelabout a duel to the death between women, which suggests that the risks women face from men are as nothing compared to the soul-eating, hope-

murdering wounds which their fellow females are capable of inflicting, but it's true. The Robber Bride is an absorbing, high-speed read, the prose burnished with the author's characteristic verve, wit and insight. But Atwood, in this gleefully un-PC parable, is having too much fun to plumb the depths of true evil.

The three women who fall victim to the 'robber bride' Zenia are brightly brought to life in hundred-page sections that make the book read a little like a trinity of interlinked novellas. First comes tiny Tony Fremont, the historian of war (the ordinary, boys-and- their-toys kind), who has so taken to heart a version of C V Wedgwood's old dictum about history being lived forwards but written in retrospect that she privately uses a backwards, jabberwocky language in which she herself becomes Ynot Tnomerf, a mysterious alter ego like an 'alien twin' speaking a mirror-language of half- understood half-meanings. Probe this conceit and you find family tyranny: Tony, left-handed as a child, was forced to write with her right; hence her facility for inversions and her sense of living on the wrong side of a mirror.

Then there is large-bodied Roz, successful businesswoman, mother of actual, non-alien twins. And lastly there is ethereal, mystical Charis - born Karen, she too has renamed herself and is, as we will learn, a divided (twinned) self, with a bitter, damaged, perhaps even violent Karen-self hidden beneath hippyish, wafting, gently daffy Charis. All three women have emerged from unhappy families, in which wicked uncles did more than just dandle young girls on their knees, and all of them have had trouble with

their mothers.

Glamorous, unscrupulous Zenia learns their secrets and destroys their lives. Zenia is aliar, a thief, a blackmailer. She invents great strings of false histories for herself and is a genius at improvising her way out of trouble even when caught in a lie. Zenia is wonderful at convincing people she is their truest and most loving ally, at using the trust of others as the weapon with which to cripple them for life. There is no line she will not cross, no length to which she will not go: she is not mad, but bad. She is a great fake: she even fakes cancer. 'Everyone has known someone like Zenia', the dustjacket confidently suggests. Really? Well, if you think about it, honestly, the answer may be yes.

I wanted to know more about Zenia than The Robber Bride tells us. She never becomes more than the darkness in Roz, Charis and Tony's lives; she is their hatred made flesh, and it's suggested that they somehow cause her to come back to life because they have failed to let her go. She is heavily mythologised, remaining young- looking while the others age; she leads an amazing, piratical life, even getting herself mixed up with the Iraqi supergun affair. But why she is who she is remains opaque. Atwood makes her a perfectly credible monster. I would have preferred to see her, as we see the other women, from the inside.

As for men, the fragile dears, we are told that male fantasies rule the world, and that is the source of Zenia's power. But the men in this story possess only the power of being loved by women: the power to inflict joy, and pain, in an oddly unknowing, absent way. Men are to be cocooned, protected, saved. Which - like the alleged ubiquity of Zenia - may very well also be true.

The Robber Bride is a tale of small, private catastrophes. Its villain unleashes nothing grander than domestic and emotional violence. But it is vividly written, acutely observed and is very possibly the most intelligently tongue-in-cheek novel of the year. It is as good as ever to hear Margaret Atwood's dry, droll, spiky voice. Why the novel is being published too late to make the Booker shortlist, however, remains a mystery.

(Photograph omitted)

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