Book Review: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

When cold weather draws in and the lights are extinguished from mid-afternoon on, I long to hibernate. To be warm and cosy at home, baking or reading or catching up on recorded episodes of Strictly. But there are times I can be coaxed into a detour on my way out of the office, and the chance to discuss Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (Bloomsbury) with the lovely crew over at the Society of Young Publishers was one such recent occasion.

The opening line

‘The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant.’

The tales

Stone Mattress is a collection of nine tales, distinct from the ‘short story’ – a category that Atwood tells us in the acknowledgements ‘removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales’. There is a fantastical quality about the nine tales in this book that draw you in as a reader and keep you turning the pages.

Opening the book with three related tales – Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady – Atwood explores how shared experiences can bind people together long after their associations end. In this case it is a trio comprised of a beatnik poet whose heyday is behind him, his ex-girlfriend who made it big as a fantasy writer and the vixen who came between them.

This theme of a defining moment that casts long shadows is one Atwood revisits in The Dead Hand Loves You and Stone Mattress. The first tale relates how a Faustian bargain at university changes the lives of four roommates and leads to the contemplation of murder (but is really quite a funny read). And the second shows how an act of violence can set a woman on an alternative path through life with disastrous effects.

This collection also teased out thoughts around the process of ageing and how, even if it’s faced squarely, it can be frightening and disconcerting and change your relationship not only with those around you but with yourself too.

The most touching tale for me was the final one. Torching the Dusties introduces us to Wilma and Tobias, unlikely friends at a posh retirement home. Wilma’s eyesight is almost gone, leaving her with vivid apparitions of little people dressed in fine costumes and fond of dancing. Tobias lends her his sight in exchange for companionship and conversation. One day a crowd gathers at the gate of the retirement complex, part of an international movement determined to clear out the dust to make way for the future. Setting the blame for all the world’s woes on the older generation, they are burning down retirement homes with everyone locked inside. Atwood’s tale is tense and dark, and while escape seems possible, you are left with a sense of unease and no clear resolution.

The writing, as is always the case with Atwood, is exceptional. Imaginative, detailed, and full of human drama, this is a collection I truly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Check out Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales for yourself!

Image credit: Alice Hampson

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