‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood
- 1 of 2
- next ›
“Without the bone and sinew of wings, no flight,” muses one character in Stone Mattress, the latest book of stories from Margaret Atwood. This line, a reflection that all we are can only be felt and expressed through the body, also serves as an artistic credo, on the way the detail and grit of the mundane give force to the imagination. Atwood calls these nine stories “tales”, signalling a playfulness with genre and claiming some of the freedom of the “wonder tale” as told by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson.
The praise from Alice Munro on the cover is apt because Atwood shares some of Munro’s mastery at condensing an entire life into a short story. Stone Mattress also shares Munro’s great subject, time: vast sweeps of it, distilled into a few pages. In her shorter works, Atwood has often retold the stories a culture tells itself: myth, fable, folk wisdom. In Stone Mattress, she focuses on how individuals mythologise their own lives.
Like Angela Carter, Atwood has a fascination with Bluebeard, the aristocratic monster who serially murders his wives and stores them in a chamber, daring his newest, youngest wife to look and not to look. The stasis of the dead wives, their preservation of a kind of life-in-death, suggests a metaphor for art. Of course, there’s an echo of Eve’s temptation and punishment, that women will be punished for a desire to know and explore. There’s a thesis waiting to be written on Atwood’s ongoing preoccupation with the Bluebeard tale as a metaphor for the writer’s vampirism, drawing vitality from life, transforming it and moving on.
Atwood is especially interested in female Bluebeards. In the first tale, ‘Alphinland’, a genre writer “stores” her troublesome first love, himself a poet, in suspended animation within her fantasy world. This story also introduces the other major theme of the collection: the force of desire between men and women no matter their age. Atwood uses this sexual tension as the narrative engine of nearly all these stories. Her portrait of ageing gallant Tobias in ‘Torching the Dusties’, and the way his masculine amour-propre drives him to display real heroism, is one of the most touching tributes to male chivalry I’ve ever read.
Atwood’s dry humour is evident, as always. She teases with her usual subtlety, as in the affectionate mockery of the feckless husband in ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’: “Who knows what he’ll get up to next? Not him.” Two stories seem underdone. The genetic monster in ‘Lusus Naturae’ feels a bit familiar, and though ‘The Freeze-Dried Groom’ sparkles, it ends too abruptly.
In this otherwise strong collection, Atwood shows us it’s not the events of our lives themselves that matter but the tales we tell as a result. Read them.