Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

stone mattressTelling tales…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In her afterword, Margaret Atwood describes this book as a collection of nine ‘tales’, evoking “the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales”. She suggests that while the word ‘story’ can cover true life or realism, ‘tales’ can only be seen as fiction. Hmm…this seems like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card to allow the author to make her characters dance to the puppeteer’s strings rather than attempting to invest them with a feeling of emotional truth, but then I’m not a huge fan of the trend towards mimicry of folk tales in general. Certainly the tales that worked best for me in this book were the ones where, regardless of the fantastical elements of the plots, the characters’ thoughts and reactions came over as ‘real’.

There’s a general theme through most of the tales, not so much of ageing itself, but of elderly people reviewing episodes in their youth and of the reader seeing how their lives were affected by them. Most of the time those episodes involve failed romantic or sexual relationships and, while as individual stories they are for the most part interesting, I found, as I often do with collections with such a strong theme running through, that it became a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

But she doesn’t care what he thinks about her legs as much as she used to. She says the clogs are comfortable, and that comfort trumps fashion as far as she’s concerned. Gavin has tried quoting Yeats to the effect that women must labour to be beautiful, but Reynolds – who used to be a passionate Yeats fan – is now of the opinion that Yeats is entitled to his point of view, but that was then and social attitudes were different, and in actual fact Yeats is dead.

The quality of the prose, however, is excellent and, taken alone, some of the stories are highly entertaining. Perhaps in line with Atwood’s desire for these to read like folk tales, there’s something of a detached feeling about the narrative voice in many of them – a glibness that takes on an almost sneering tone at times, leading, I found, to a distance between reader and character which effectively prevented me from feeling much emotional investment in their fates. To compensate, many of them are clever and imaginative, and some of the characterisation is excellent even when the emotional response to them is absent.

The collection kicks off with three linked tales, telling of a long-ago broken love affair from the perspective of the woman, the man and the ‘other woman’ respectively. The first of these, Alphinland, is one of the most successful in the book, with a beautifully-drawn picture of an elderly woman struggling to recover from the grief of losing her husband by a kind of active retreat into the world she creates in her own fantasy novels. Despite the fantastical elements to this tale, there is genuine warmth here as the central character faces up to the necessity of taking on tasks that had always been seen as the responsibility of her husband. Although there’s a lot of humour in them, the other two tales in the trio don’t work quite so well, as the fantastical elements that were done with a lot of subtlety in the first are handled more crudely, and what was left ambiguous is made a little too clear.

“Now I’m going to get the tea ready. If you don’t behave yourself when Naveena comes, you won’t get a cookie.” The cookie ploy is a joke, her attempt to lighten things up, but it’s faintly horrifying to him that the threat of being deprived of such a cookie hits home. No cookie! A wave of desolation sweeps through him. Also he’s drooling. Christ. Has it come down to this? Sitting up to beg for treats?

Other stories include a kind of mini-Frankenstein story told from the perspective of the youthful monster; a tale of a horror writer who resents sharing the royalties of his most successful story with friends from his youth, who have held him to a contract he signed long before he had ever published anything; a crooked furniture dealer who finds more than he bargained for when he buys a job-lot of storage units; and a black widow out for revenge on the man who raped her in her youth.

And two that I particularly enjoyed are:

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth – another tale of elderly women looking back, this time at the woman Zenia who stole a man from each of them in their youth, but this one stood out because of its sympathetic portrayal of the friendship between the three women, supporting each other as age takes its toll on them.

Torching the Dusties is the last story in the book. The premise is that young people, maddened by the economic mess left them by their elders, decide those elders should no longer be allowed to live on, eating up scarce resources. It’s told from the perspective of Wilma, a woman living in a retirement home, who is almost blind from macular degeneration and has the visual hallucinations that sometimes go with it. Despite its unlikeliness, Atwood manages to make the premise chillingly believable and as the story plays out, she doesn’t pull any punches. It’s always wise to leave the best to last, and this story went a long way to improving my opinion of the collection overall.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

I’m increasingly convinced that collections often detract from, rather than enhancing, the individual stories within them – it’s a rare writer who can produce enough originality to maintain a consistent standard and avoid repetition. I’m pretty sure I’d have been impressed by any of these stories had I come across them in an anthology of different authors but, collected as they are here, I found myself sighing a bit as the basic premise was recycled again and again. I admired the book more than I liked it in the end – the tales are skilfully told, but on the whole didn’t engage me emotionally, and I fear I haven’t been left with a burning desire to seek out more of Atwood’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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63 thoughts on “Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

  1. Now then, this collection both intrigues and repels me. It does sound like a beautifully written selection of ‘tales’ (let’s side with the author on that one for a moment) and the folk-story feel actually sounds quite interesting to me. On the other hand, I am not personally a huge fan of (and I will no doubt be pelted with heavy objects) elderly people recounting tales of lost love and the like. In real life, listening to old people talk about their youth is the most fascinating thing ever, but it’s the ‘realness’ that is so brilliant. Perhaps in a full-length novel, where I have grown attached to a character, I might like to hear about their life-changing past events. This sounds like a book to dip into once in awhile, rather than read from cover to cover. Atwood has super hair, though, very jolly!

    • Well, actually I agree with you, so we can be pelted together. It’s different if it’s important events, but eighty-year-olds sighing about lost boyfriends from six decades ago… maybe it’s just me, but I tend to get over these things a bit quicker than that! In fact, I’d be lucky if I could remember the guy’s name… However, some of the stories were about more substantial things, and she did give a good picture of some aspects of ageing in passing.

      The folk tale aspect varies with me – I loved Aimee Bender’s stories, mostly, but these ones just didn’t make me feel very much for the protagonists. It’s always so subjective though…

      Yes, she does!

    • Yes, a few of them can do it – Hilary Mantel’s recent collection had a theme but no two stories were alike. But mostly I find I start out loving the first two or three stories and then beginning to get a feeling of deja vu as it goes on…

  2. That cookie threat is rather rotten. Bright red teeth! There’s something nice about that. Did that have anything to do with the story? Red teeth. I like that lots.

    Torching the Dusties sounds…mean! But also sorta neatio. Is it violent?

    Can I say something, or not?! (This should warn you about yellow books.)

    • It sorta did in a quirky sort of way! But I can’t explain, I fear… I loved the cookie bit – so cruel to threaten someone with that!

      That particular one is – in fact a few of the stories were pretty dark… I reckon she could probably write horror well. In fact, I get the impression from reviews of her books that she can get very dark…

      No! No!! Oh, but surely she’s too famous… *considers* Well, it’ll be your fault! Go on, then! (*laughs* What colours are good then?)

      • Unless, of course, you like cakes better than cookies, and pies better than cakes.

        *shudders* As dark as the master, SK?

        If she went bald, she’d be Picard. Now I’m nervous, since she’s such a dark writer. (Well, red, blue…black. And orange.)

        • Cakes are better than cookies! *nods decisively* But pies…?

          Tchah! Pollyanna is darker than SK!

          *laughs lots* That’s so cruel… to Picard!! I might tweet her and tell her you said it… (Purple with pink polka dots?)

          • I agree completely! Pies are probably just a bit lower than cookies? Probably.

            Wowawee! And a bit better looking, too.

            *laughing even more than FEF* Please do! The worst she could do is do it! (That’s such a girls thingy!)

            • *nods* And well below chocolate pudding…

              Not much of a compliment, really!

              She could put you in a story and have you chased by trolls! (*sighs* OK, OK – blue polka dots, then!)

            • Can’t say I’ve had too much chocolate pudding…

              *laughing* That’s because the professor doesn’t give compliments.

              But this professor would end up killing all the trolls. (No! Must be red.)

            • Poor C-W-W!! That’s so sad…

              Hah! Except when he forgets he’s heartless…

              But the gnomes might get you… (OK, I’ll look out for one and add it to your list.)

            • More of the white stuff…with those circular objects in it.

              Which happens…once in a red moon! Can’t remember the last time I did, see.

              If they’re FEF-ish, yes! (*laughing* Yes, that book deserves to be read.)

            • Hmm… vanilla ice-cream with Maltesers? Rice pudding with cherries? A plate of snow with pebbles?

              Oh, the moon must be red quite often when you visit my blog then…

              *gnomish grin* (It may take some time…)

            • Tapioca?! Good noodles! I’m stunned!!

              *laughs* Poor C-W-W!

              Look, if I started writing a book that would mean every single person in the whole wide world was writing one – who’d do all the reading?!?

            • Why? Don’t you have that where you hail?

              Yeah! Like you give a newton!

              *laughing* Good point. I’m not writing one. So…we’re a team. Though I don’t really read either. You know, it’s funny how you make me want to read…

            • It’s considered really old-fashioned over here – only people even older than BUS would eat it. I don’t think I’ve ever had it…

              *laughs* I like that expression, I think!

              You’re not? We could be like Nicci French – only we’d be a famous non-writing partnership. *laughs* I’m sorry – I don’t mean to do it…

            • *laughs lots and lots* That’s hilarious! I’m older than BUS. I knew it. It’s really tasty.

              *fist thingy*

              Nah…not really. Not a PL one, that is. Now that sounds like a plan. But you did it! And I quite like it.

            • I’ll take your word for it – it must have unique anti-ageing properties though. That’ll be why you don’t need wrinkle cream…

              Intriguing… *intrigued expression* I’m glad! It’d be so awful if you hated it! *adds some more books*

            • It can taste good or really bad. It’s either one or the other, from my experience. You can have some with your cappuccino and bear claw, if you like.

              More? It’s so hard to find a “nice” copy of John Carter’s 3rd book…

            • Hmm…no, I think I’ll let you keep all the tapioca. It sounds…slimy, and I don’t like slimy food.

              Is it? You should get a “nice” Kindle instead then…then you could fill it up as well as your shelves!

            • *laughing lots* You say that…but I bet I could find lots of slimy things you like. Remember, you don’t like fantasy, YA, or romance…

              *laughs* But then…imagine how you’d attack!

            • Are you suggesting I’m inconsistent, sir?!? *tries not to laugh*

              I know!!! It would be great fun! Do you know I could actually send books straight to your Kindle?? Imagine waking up one morning and discovering you’d acquired the Complete Works of Dickens to read… *gurgles like Zez*

            • You’re right! From now on I shall only read Dickens and Austen – you’ll love the reviews!!

              Sort of! Wouldn’t it be great fun? What a way to go…

            • Because I’d read them all before I started reviewing. If I ever re-read them I will, if I haven’t reached the point where I can never face writing another review again!

              *rubs hands gleefully*

  3. FictionFan – I think part of what makes some tales so enduring is that they depict realistic characters. So I agree with you that that tale/story distinction may be a rather slippery one, if I can put it that way. And it’s true that many story collections are a bit uneven. Still, I’m glad you found some things to like about this one, even if it doesn’t exactly inspire you to go get Atwood’s backlist.

    • As usual, it is a taste thing, but on the whole I prefer realism, especially in characterisation. I can cope with a fantasy setting but the people have to matter to me, and they don’t if I can’t quite believe in them. I suspect this collection probably isn’t a good entry point to Atwood’s stuff – I’m sure it will work better for pre-existing fans…

  4. Hmmmm. This one sounds like a downer. I read The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago, and it pretty much chilled me to the core. It would be interesting to revisit to see if it holds up to my recollection.

  5. The only Attwood I have read (I think) was “A Handmaid’s Tale”, which I admired but disliked, and I doubt if this one is for me. Despite my love of fantasy I HATE (lots of capitals and underlinings) fake folk/fairy “tales”.

    • Interesting – I’ve been thinking about reading A Handmaid’s Tale for ages, but haven’t quite been able to bring myself to. I must say that, despite her comments, these weren’t very folk tale-ish excpet in the sense that the ‘narrative voice’ felt so detached from the story. I thought she was using the term ‘tale’ as a bit of a cop-out really…

  6. Oryx and Crake!! A novel of hers that It is absolutely brilliant, and must be sampled by a reading connoisseur such as yourself Mr Fictionfan. It simply must. *nods fervently*.

    – sonmi upon the Cloud

    • I was hoping these stories might encourage me towards her books, ‘cos I’ve heard such good things about them. Oryx and Crake – hmm! I shall take it under consideration then, and not write her off completely… *reapplies mascara and lippy to let somni know she’s a girlie not a Mr!!*

      • Ohhhh! Hahaha that happens a great deal I find *laughs* pardon me misses *curtsies and offers a cream bun*. Do try that particular book. It’s a cracker I reckon.

        – sonmi borrowing Fictionfan’s lippy upon the Cloud

        • Haha! I know – half the time I have no idea what gender other people are when they use a pseudonym! *accepts cream bun with gratitude and saves some cream on upper lip for later*
          I shall add it to the wishlist, which is the stage after the maybe list, but before the TBR list…

  7. I also read The Handmaid’s Tale years and years ago and the story has stayed with me ever since. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the tales/stories (either word is fine by me) stay with you for years to come too.

    • I’m kinda regretting I went with the stories and didn’t read A Handmaid’s Tale instead. I’m not sure these stories will stay with me, except maybe Torching the Dusties, which I thought was really good, but OK, I won’t write her off completely then… 🙂

  8. Amazing timing! I bought this book a couple weeks ago to take on a flight and delayed getting around to it until a few nights ago. I kept getting interrupted and made it 10 pages (if that). From your review, the last story is enough for me to pick up the collection in earnest this weekend! Happy Friday! 😀

    • Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed most of the stories a lot, though I prefer more emotional involvement than I got from these. But the best of them are very good – and I did like the last one best of all. Hope you enjoy! I shall look forward to your review… 🙂

  9. I’m glad you were not entirely disappointed. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology of short stories. And they were all written by Stephen King. The ones that were good were excellent. The others left me wondering what that was all about.

  10. I didn’t enjoy The Handmaiden’s Tale at all and as a result (unusually for me) have steered clear of Atwood ever since. I do struggle with short stories (or tales) but maybe I should take a look and see if I have been unfair to put her so firmly on my blacklist?

    • I’m kinda glad to hear that oddly, because almost everyone who’s commented has been pushing me towards The Handmaiden’s Tale and I was really beginning to think it must be me. I reckon I’ll have to try at least one of her novels before I write her off completely…

      These tales/stories are good individually and I think you might enjoy some of them – it was really that they were too similar that made the whole collection begin to feel like a bit of a drag.

    • This is the only thing of hers I’ve read, but my commenters have beaten me into submission so I think I’ll have to read one of the novels. Did you enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale?

  11. I generally do not like compilations of stories but this sounds a lot like her Good Bones and Simple Murders which is a favorite of mine. Thank you for the review.

    • I’m not a huge fan of short stories in general, though I’ve been reading lots of them recently and am getting more comfortable with the form. But if you’ve enjoyed her collections in the past, I’m sure you’ll get a lot out of this one – despite my criticisms of it as a collection, I thought individually a lot of the stories were very good.

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