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