I really enjoyed the new Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress, a collection of nine stories. Each was rather wonderful, some of them were slightly entwined, with a just- mentioned character from one appearing centre stage in another story. At least one story revisits characters from one of Atwood’s novels (The Robber Bride), which feels a bit like catching up with the relatives you haven’t seen for a few years, scanning each other curiously for changes.
Atwood’s writing is clear and spare and elegant, and sometimes unsettling, these are quite dark tales. I particularly enjoyed the first story featuring a woman whose husband has only recently died. She is the very successful author of a fantasy series and slips between a world that appears in her total control and the one outside her door. In a couple of later stories we see the fantasy author in other characters’ worlds, through their eyes. I think Atwood’s exploration of the creative writing process – and what other people think of it – is interesting and it made me wonder about Atwood’s experiences of creating worlds and books, and being The Writer. These are startling and darkly enchanting tales – they almost feel like fables or myths – about an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome coming to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence (‘Kill the elderly, save resources’ is their catch-cry); a woman born with a genetic abnormality who is mistaken for a vampire in a tale that is melancholy and heart-breaking, and a crime committed long ago is cleverly revenged on an Arctic sightseeing cruise, via a 1.9 billion-year-old stromatalite or ‘stone mattress’.
Original, interesting, oddly humourous and thought-provoking, if you have never read any Atwood, this would be a good place to start, and if you haven’t read any for a while this is a great welcome-back. I am looking forward to re-reading them in about 6 months – they are that good.