Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
Length: 268 pages
Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories is sharp, imaginative, juicy, and strange—quintessential Atwood, in other words! The nine tales of Stone Mattress all deal, in some way, with the theme of growing older, but Atwood also considers relationships, marriage, identity and art. Atwood is both darkly humorous and deadly serious in these stories. For Atwood fans, this collection is an absolute must-read. And for those who have never read Atwood before (and, oh my goodness, why is that?), her latest short fiction may provide the perfect entry to her work.
The Stories: Every one of these nine stories is well worth the read, but I will just highlight a few of my favorites. In the title story, “Stone Mattress,” Verna, while on a cruise of the Arctic, meets up with a man who had humiliated her high school five decades ago. She plots her revenge in the icy landscape of 1.9 billion-year-old stromatolites. In the strange and highly affecting “Lusus Naturae,” a girl born with genetic abnormalities is believed by her family and village to be a vampire. Atwood revisits the memorable characters from her 1993 novel The Robber Bride (one of my favorite Atwood novels) in the story “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth;” Atwood brings Tony, Roz, Charis, and even Zenia (!) back to life perfectly, and creates a highly satisfying epilogue to the original story. In the powerful final story, “Torching the Dusties,” Atwood follows an older man and woman trapped inside a retirement community while a violent, anti-elderly protest rages outside the gates.
My Thoughts: I don’t read short fiction very often. Like many readers who love novels, I sometimes find short stories overly abrupt. I fear getting emotionally involved with characters and then having my ties to them cut too quickly. But lately I’m finding that short fiction can be a welcome alternative to a novel. I read this collection just after Dewey’s 24-Hour-Readathon, and I only tackled one or two stories per night. It proved to be the perfect way to ease myself back into books after the post-readathon reading hangover. Short stories, I’m learning, can also help you sneak in a little fiction reading at times when you feel too stressed or busy to commit to a novel.
In any case, I loved this collection—maybe because I’m developing more of an appreciation for short fiction, or perhaps I was just so darn happy to read something new from Atwood. To me, these stories represent a return to the vintage Atwood of the 1990s, the era of Alias Grace and The Robber Bride—meaning a return to fiction that is psychologically insightful and emotionally gripping, but not overly fantastical. I highly recommend Stone Mattress for readers of literary fiction.