Margaret Atwood, prodigious in output, recently released Stone Mattress, a collection not of short stories but of tales. This deliberate distinction locates the collection away from the everyday or mundane, into the realm of fairy tales, mythic adventures, fantastical worlds, horror stories told around a campfire. And while people or situations may come across as familiar at first, decisions are made or moments revealed that show there is something a lot more dark or mystical going on underneath.
As promised on the cover, nine tales are contained herein, defiantly playing in speculative fiction and magical realism. Some tales cover three perspectives on the one event, some are achingly short fully self-contained very telling moments in time. They are all also very funny, Atwood ensuring her sharp, intelligent, wonderful observations are applied:
“She does not come up to her own standards. Her only superstitions have to do with the labels on expensive cosmetics. Jorrie actually believes the deceitful come-hither labels – the plumpings, the firmings, the unwrinklings, the returning of youthful dews, the hints of immortality – despite having been in advertising herself, a vocation guaranteed to take the bloom off ornamental adjectives.”
It can take a moment to orient yourself when each of these stories starts: the realm of possibility of where we are is so broad; it could be a timeless horror story of beast and identity, or it could be just a particularly wicked older woman who no longer gives a stuff. Every one plays with the unbelievable, and that can be an extension of or play on the known, or a jump-in-head-first to the fantastical.
Between all these tales there is a theme of age, a quiet falling apart, a release from the waste of energy from preoccupations of youth, the reality of getting older setting you free. But this theme is with a knowing wink: the collection does not console nor empowers a raising of fists as it writes from a place of bemused knowing and self-awareness. Perhaps once you reach a certain stage of life, there is always someone you want to kill. Not a poking fun at anyone, but a deliberate taking of the experience and taken off into the mad, bad, wondrous and whimsical.
In all it is a delightful collection, an imaginative psychological romp, a play in fantasy and fear and the everyday. These nine tales roam broadly and always manage to show true clarity of experience. Atwood is a true tale-teller, wicked and wise, a weaver of story and surprise.