Book Review for “Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales” by Margaret Atwood
According Harper’s Bazar’s the blurb on the back of this book, “Stone Mattress, a collection of nine, acerbic, mischievous, gulpable short stories, addresses themes that will resonate with anyone familiar with Atwood’s writing. Atwood’s gimlet eye and sharp tongue are turned on the ageing process to painfully accurate effect.” Yeah… that’s about right, if you ask me.
If memory serves, before this collection was released in 2014, I asked for the ARC on NetGalley, but was rudely turned down. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to read these stories because… Atwood, and well… the word ‘wicked’ in the subtitle just, you know, turned me on! When I won a voucher for the Book Depository, this was one of the two books I bought. Now I know that not everyone likes short stories, but I happen to think they’re absolute gems, if done well. Furthermore, I also know that not all authors of full-length novels can successfully write in this shorter format, as there’s a greater need for precision of language as well as tight plotting. However, Atwood is probably one of the most versatile of authors alive today, having published novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, children’s books, and non-fiction books and essays, not to mention her work on the TV series made from her classic “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Alias Grace.”
So, the nine stories are entitled:
- Dark Lady
- Lusus Naturae
- The Freeze-Dried Groom
- I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth
- The Dead Hand Loves You
- Stone Mattress
- Torching the Dusties
Yeah… intriguing, right? I mean, just the titles of the stories evoke something in the reader, not the least of which is pure curiosity. But I do have to mention that despite how it might seem like these are all dramatic stories, once again, Atwood shows her ability to insert humor into her tales. Mind you, not all of them are funny, but all of them seem to have a twist, and that’s one thing for which Atwood is truly famous. Also, don’t forget that Atwood has always said that nothing in any of her stories are totally the figments of her imagination, and that everything she puts into her fiction is based on something that happened in real life. So when Constance hears her dead husband’s voice, or a woman pulls off the perfect murder of the man who humiliated her when they were in High School, you’ve got to wonder about the levels of insanity or evil – or as Atwood calls it, wickedness – that must exist inside humans as a whole.
While I haven’t read all that many of Atwood’s works, one thing that always strikes me about her writing is that she really knows how to capture your attention and hold onto it through the very last word. Interestingly enough, she does this with a very enigmatic style, that can go from highly lyrical to almost mono-chromatically plain, without missing a beat. Take for example the opening sentence in her first story here. “The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.” Well, its snowing outside, isn’t it? She could have said that, but instead, she went for the poetry. Then, the first sentence of the next paragraph reads: “The TV screen is a flat high-definition one that Ewan bought so he could watch hockey and football games on it.” Totally straightforward, and almost obvious, which she follows with “Constance would rather have the old fuzzy one back, with its strangely orange people and its habit of rippling and fading: there are some things that do not fare well in high definition.” It seems so simple, and yet so evocative. In just these two lines, we understand how these two people differed, and underneath there’s something about their relationship that she’s hinting at, which we later understand better as the story progresses. That’s Atwood’s magic, and it is in spades here.
Of course, a good collection of stories often has something that connects the stories, something in common. Here, Atwood plays up on the “wicked” side of her protagonists, even if the person who is wicked isn’t the main character, or in one instance, isn’t even a living being. There’s also another instance where she gives us two wicked characters, one whose history shows their bad characteristics, which thereby evokes evil in Atwood’s main protagonist and narrator of the story. As noted already, with Atwood combining humor into these stories, the darkness of what is evil is somehow lightened into something that feels more naughty than sinister, even when one of the characters commits the ultimate crime of murder! While this sounds confusing, it’s also hard to explain, and Atwood makes everything perfectly clear to her readers. That’s why there’s no reason why I can’t give this collection a full and resounding five out of five stars, and recommend it to anyone and everyone!
“Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales” by Margaret Atwood is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Foyles, WHSmith, Waterstones, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.