🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
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.
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.