After such a wondrous experience with my first foray into Margaret Atwood’s short stories, the possibilities Bluebeard’s Egg held were tantalising. These stories are sharp, ending at points that can leave you breathless with possibility, or fury that there is no more. But there is little compulsion to close the book to savour the character, or the moment Atwood immerses you in: I found these stories more of interest, rather than emotion but they had meaning for me nonetheless.
In the title story, we delve into the secret world of Sally with her darling, stupid husband Ed. Sally is at once cloying and intelligent, gently contemptuous of Ed while greedy to hold onto him. In her latest evening class, Sally has to retell the aural story of Bluebeard’s Egg in a modern context from one of the characters’ perspective. She chooses the egg, planning to voice it with the soft, simple internal monologue she has given to Ed. Synchronously, she discovers there is more to Ed than she allows when she thinks she spots him with her friend (and her friend’s arse) after a dinner party. Here the story ends: we never see Sally’s retelling, never see her changed relationship with Ed or her friend, we never see if she rises above her contempt for the evening course teacher to bring something sharp and real to her version of Bluebeard’s Egg.
Other stories, such as “Unearthing Suite”, are more abstract, images of parents ageing; or more reminiscent and biopic like “Hurricane Hazel” and “Two Stories About Emma”. We flit across different eras, characters in different stages, colouring in the multi-facets of possibility in a life. Any chosen life. The themes of these characters’ lives seemed familiar to me from previous Atwood outings: ageing artists, life in Toronto, a rural life by the lake; but that is not to say that it fees like it has been done before. These are obviously common, ongoing concerns for Atwood, and by retuning to them with regularity she is exploring them from different angles, new perspectives.
Throughout the collection, a common undercurrent between the stories was one of gender: politics, difference, power. Women who were ageing, or who were living their lives differently, or who were exploring their own inner life; stories about men where the plot is centred on gender compelling or changing the world.
All that does not necessarily make this a piece of feminist literature: a concern with the lives of the other half of the population simply makes you an observant writer who doesn’t want to limit their writing. And this perspective gives more to contemplate when away from the book: these are inner lives that are rarely published. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, or support them, but it is revealing that while reading about these characters I immediately found a kind of academic resonance even though they had not been heard before.
This is a valuable collection of characters, of stories told from places rarely heard. While there was little emotional pulse for me, these were tales I wanted to hear, and appreciated them being told. Atwood has woven a total image of the role that gender plays in our lives: shaping our identity, shaping how we see the world, shaping our power and role in this place. It is subtle and hushed, but it is there.