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Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by John Last

Is there something in the water to account for it? Canada has produced many more than its fair share of fine literary craftsmen. Interestingly, most of them are women. Alice Munro achieved the ultimate accolade, the Nobel Prize for literature, and well deserved it was, too. Others worthy to stand beside Munro include Mavis Gallant and Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood isn’t known primarily as a master of the art of the short story, but her new collection, Stone Mattress, is among other things, a demonstration of literary craftsmanship of the highest order. I choose my words with precision and care. I visualize Margaret Atwood rather as I might visualize a diamond-cutter shaping a precious stone with consummate skill, carving the uncut stone to produce a perfect jewel. Each story in this collection of Nine Tales is a perfectly cut jewel. Every word is perfectly chosen for its purpose and is perfectly placed in the sentence and paragraph of which it is an essential part. Collected together they are like a tiara, an ornate necklace, or an exotic jewel-encrusted decoration for a lovely evening dress.

Several stories are intertwined in elegant ways. The first three, for example, are connected through a poet who is a sort of anti-hero of the second story. The first story is about the woman who was the poet’s mistress when both were penniless youngsters aspiring to become writers. She is seen here in her frail old age, and the story alludes to the fantasy world she created in what eventually became a body of work with a fiercely loyal cult following. The second story is about the poet and his protective fifth wife. They are visited by an earnest young graduate student who, they think, has come in search of enlightenment about the poet’s work. Alas for his ego, she has come to ask about the former mistress who supported him by selling her fantasies, which he had always despised despite living off the money these fantasies earned. The poet has died by the time of the third story, which is about the cat-fight at his memorial ceremony between the author of the fantasies and the other woman in his youthful life. The delightful pleasure of reading thesethree stories is partly due to the oblique vantage point from which each story views the world in which the events described took place.

Collectively these stories and others in this collection, all enlivened by Atwood’s wicked wit, are rather reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce, or Saki, or Roald Dahl, but they surpass all three of those masters in elegant prose and perfectly chosen words. It’s a better collection than her last one, Moral Disorder, which I thought at the time would be hard to beat.

I’ve admired Margaret Atwood and loved her works for many years. There is plenty to love: the list of her published works occupies two full pages in the front matter of this book. I’ve read almost all of it except some of her poems and her stories for children. Her wit and dry humour illuminate everything she writes, whether it’s a scholarly review of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels, her recent dystopic speculative fiction trilogy (Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, Maddaddam) the Massey lectures, or one of her early novels about the lives of over and under privileged young women in 1960-ish Toronto.

One reason I’ve enjoyed these Nine Tales so much is that the characters are mostly well past the prime of life, reminiscing about, lamenting, or reflecting on events and behavior in their misspent youth. In my ninth decade and fast closing in on ttenth, I do a lot of this myself, so I empathize with Atwood’s characters more than I might if I were younger. She’s approaching her 80s herself, so perhaps that’s why she writes with such satisfying if sometimes sadistic pleasure about old folk like herself, and like me.

Nowadays I live in an apartment, not in a house with high ceilings and abundant walls to support book shelves, so space is limited and I’m no longer anally retentive as I always was in the past. Now I pass on most of the books I acquire to family and friends. Not this book though. It will stay here where it will join others by Margaret Atwood that I can’t discard because I want to reread them from time to time and find new things to enjoy each time I do so.

Stone Mattress; Nine Tales is published by McClelland and Stewart.

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