Yet another master­piece from At­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Pierce

WITH writ­ing that is dar­ing, orig­i­nal, ec­cen­tric, grimly jest­ing, Cana­dian au­thor Mar­garet At­wood has forged a long, di­verse, end­lessly sel­f­re­new­ing ca­reer. She is a poet, nov­el­ist, es­say­ist and short-story writer. Her most re­cent novel, Mad­dA­dam, bril­liantly con­cluded the bleak and comic tril­ogy in which she imag­ined a dystopian near fu­ture. Her new short-story col­lec­tion, Stone Mat­tress, is subti­tled Nine Tales. As she writes, they ‘‘owe a debt to tales through the ages’’. They are in­fused with both preter­nat­u­ral hap­pen­ings and a clear-eyed ob­ser­va­tion of hu­man folly.

One tale was gen­er­ated by a mag­a­zine invitation to re­visit char­ac­ters from an ear­lier work. Thus I Dream of Ze­nia with the Bright Red Teeth brings back Ze­nia and her ‘‘friends or dupes’’, Ros, Charis and Tony from At­wood’s 1993 novel The Rob­ber Bride. And, as she says, there are tales be­hind tales. The Freeze-Dried Groom re­minds us of the ru­ined wed­ding cel­e­bra­tions of Miss Haver­sham in Charles Dick­ens’s Great Ex­pec­ta­tions and the lock-up garage of Si­lence of the Lambs.

There are re­cur­rent mo­tifs in th­ese tales: por­traits of au­thors and of re­tire­ment homes, lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and vam­pires, Ten­nyson’s po­etry and the loss of hus­bands, age­ing and re­venge. Stone Mat­tress opens with three cun­ningly linked sto­ries in which con­nec­tions be­tween char­ac­ters across gen­er­a­tions are re­vealed sur­pris­ingly and sym­pa­thet­i­cally.

The first, Al­phin­land, refers to the fe­cund fan­tasy world cre­ated — to popular ac­claim and com­mer­cial suc­cess — by a woman who writes as Con­stance W. Starr. The word elves sounds in the ti­tle and Aphid­land is what her for­mer lover, poet Gravin Putnam, en­vi­ously calls th­ese works, but Con­stance had in mind Alph, the sa­cred river of Co­leridge’s Kublai Khan.

The story be­gins in an ice storm: ‘‘the freez­ing rains sifts down, hand­fuls of shin­ing rice thrown by some un­seen cel­e­brant’’. Con­stance is wid­owed, but her late hus­band Ewan in- Stone Mat­tress: Nine Tales By Mar­garet At­wood Blooms­bury, 288pp, $35.99 (HB) structs her on cop­ing with the storm. He had lec­tured in ar­chi­tec­ture, or in cour­ses now named ‘‘The­ory of Con­structed Space’’ and ‘‘The Con­tained Body’’. Con­stance is the cre­ator of mag­i­cal, dan­ger­ous spa­ces — ‘‘dun­geons, moors, iron cages, drift­ing boats’’. At­wood moves dex­ter­ously be­tween th­ese imag­ined realms and Con­stance’s mem­o­ries.

In par­tic­u­lar Con­stance thinks of the 1960s, when po­ets met in the River­boat cof­fee house in the Yorkville area of Toronto when it was ‘‘mor­ph­ing … from white-bread quasi-slum to cool pre-hip­pie hang­out’’. Here she was be­trayed by Gavin’s af­fair with the ador­ing Mar­jorie. Both women would claim to be the muse of his son­nets. Con­stance plots a fate in Al­phin­land for each of them. Gavin is parked in a de­serted win­ery. Mar­jorie is ‘‘im­mo­bilised by runic spells inside a stone bee­hive’’. The denizens of Con­stance’s magic king­dom ‘‘un­der­stood gal­lantry, and courage, and also re­venge’’.

At­wood, of course, has the power to set them free, so in the two fol­low­ing sto­ries she gives us an age­ing Gavin in Revenant, tended by Reynolds, his much younger third wife, and Jor­rie (once Mar­jorie) in Dark Lady, as she pre­pares for a fi­nal en­counter with the liv­ing and the dead in company with her gay twin, the clas­si­cal scholar Martin. At­wood turns her poetic and play­ful gifts to dash­ing ef­fect, in­vent­ing ob­scene redac­tions of Mar­tial epi­grams by Martin (‘‘Why not em­u­late the strum­pet?’’) and Gavin’s last poem (‘‘Maria skims the dy­ing leaves’’).

At­wood’s con­vic­tion of the power of her in­ven­tions, how­ever strange they are, never fal­ters. In The Dead Hand Loves You, another re­venge story that be­gins with a joke, a dare and then a con­tract that be­dev­ils an au­thor’s life, she does not al­lude to but makes up a master­piece of pulp hor­ror fic­tion. This is the story of the ti­tle and it es­tab­lishes the cult fame of Jack Dace. He too will be pestered by fans

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