At­wood’s re­turn to short fic­tion doesn’t miss a beat

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

and she hasn’t skipped a beat. The sto­ries see the char­ac­ters re­flect on their past lives through feel­ings of bit­ter­ness, fond­ness, love, pin­ing nostal­gia or re­sent­ment — some end­ing with sur­prise con­clu­sions, and oth­ers with new begin­nings. Through At­wood’s imag­i­na­tive sto­ry­telling, the reader fol­lows the char­ac­ters through tales of ac­cep­tance, death, for­give­ness, heart­break and lone­li­ness to mem­ory, per­se­ver­ance, re­venge and tragedy. Many of the nine tales she has spun re­volve around pro­tag­o­nists in the later stages of life. At­wood writes with great in­sight into the lives of her ag­ing char­ac­ters, build­ing from univer­sal themes and emo­tions that have taken a lifetime to ac­cu­mu­late. The book is a re­minder to the reader that many of our el­derly, a de­mo­graphic of­ten dis­missed, have lived great lives, and that th­ese peo­ple are still im­por­tant and have sto­ries to tell. In Al­phin­land, el­derly and suc­cess­ful fan­tasy writer Con­stance is caught in an ice storm while she hears and speaks to the voice of her de­ceased hus­band Ewan. Al­phin­land’s sec­ondary char­ac­ters be­come pro­tag­o­nists in the fol­low­ing two sto­ries, re­sult­ing in a mini-tril­ogy of lay­ered tales of ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments that cre­ate enor­mous depth. Gavin Putnam, Con­stance’sC first liveinin boyfriend, is the pro­tag­o­nist in Revenant. The poet’s story is de­tailed in an un­set­tling in­ter­view about the early “River­boat years” which took place inn the Yorkville area of Toronto, when he and Con­stance lived in an apart­ment on “a lumpy mat­tress.”m Later, in Dark Lady, thet reader meets Jor­rie,r the woman who brokeb up Con­stance and Gavin,G as her and twin brother Tin pre­pare for a fu­neral. From there the sto­ries be­come stand-alone pieces — not con­nected, but just as strong. In Lusus Nat­u­rae (freak of na­ture) a woman born with yel­low eyes, pink teeth, red fin­ger­nails, and long dark hair on her chest and arms fakes her death for the sake of her fam­ily. The Freeze-Dried Groom fol­lows Sam, an an­tique dealer and con man who works in “fur­ni­ture forgery” after he gets thrown out by his wife Gwyneth, and the sur­prise he finds in a stor­age unit he won at an auc­tion. I Dream of Ze­nia with the Bright Red Teeth sees At­wood re­turn to her 1993 novel The Rob­ber Bride, years later, where the reader catches up with char­ac­ters Charis, Tony, and Roz like old friends would. The three deal with the un­ex­pected reap­pear­ance of their old “neme­sis” in a new a form. In The Dead Hand Loves You (a per­sonal favourite) Jack Dace is a hor­ror writer who has had a haunt­ing black cloud hov­er­ing over him for years be­cause of an “in­fer­nal con­tract” he signed “in red-hot blood” back in his 20s with room­mates Irena, Jaf­frey, and Rod. The ti­tle tale (pre­vi­ously pub­lished in The New Yorker in 2011) tells the story of Verna, a cold and cal­cu­lat­ing mur­derer, as she va­ca­tions on a cruise ship in the Arc­tic — only to be un­ex­pect­edly re­united with the man who raped her when she was 14 years old. Torch­ing the Dusties, the last of the nine tales, in­tro­duces the reader to Wilma, an el­derly woman in a nurs­ing home who suf­fers from Charles Bon­net syn­drome. Wilma and male friend To­bias are forced to sit back and watch as their re­tire­ment home be­comes the tar­get of young adults sick of the Baby Boomer gen­er­a­tion, and who wish to be rid of them. The col­lec­tion as a whole is darkly hu­mor­ous, if not a bit batty, but writ­ten sharply and done with that love­able At­wood charm. The sto­ries in Stone Mat­tress work bet­ter than some other short story col­lec­tions out there be­cause of the char­ac­ters At­wood has cho­sen to cre­ate. We are given the char­ac­ters’ rich his­to­ries en­twined with present-day sto­ries that re­solve, leav­ing the reader feel­ing sat­is­fied rather than cheated. Although the pro­lific writer of over 45 books was snubbed for this year’s Sco­tia­bank Giller Prize, it’s a safe bet that Stone Mat­tress will still make many year-end best-of lists. It is At­wood, after all, and Stone Mat­tress is proof that she’s still at the top of her lit­er­ary game. Adam Pe­trash is a Win­nipeg writer,

but only on odd days.

Stone Mat­tress

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