Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
My very first paper in a graduate-level English class, almost 20 years ago now, was about a handful of Margaret Atwood short stories dealing with pregnancy and birth. Having read THE HANDMAID'S TALE as a teenager, I was fascinated to read more of her evocative, often fantastical takes on feminism in fiction. I've read a lot more of Atwood's fiction since then, of course, and it's been a pleasure to see her work evolve over time, including new genres and new ideas as she's evolved as a writer and I've matured as a reader. Now, in STONE MATTRESS, Atwood brings together nine stories that illustrate her exploring new themes even as she revisits familiar ones.
Actually, as Atwood mentions in an author's note, the stories collected here should more properly be called "tales," since "calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ 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." Like the tales of old, the stories collected here remove readers from the everyday, often introducing elements of surprise and wonder into their narratives.
"STONE MATTRESS would serve as an excellent introduction to Atwood's work for readers new to her fiction, or at least to her short fiction. For those who have already come to know and love her work, it demonstrates the breadth of her talents and the depth of her thoughtful exploration of topics and themes."
Only three of the stories collected here have appeared in print before. The title story, "Stone Mattress," was featured in the New Yorker and, according to Atwood, began as an oral story she told to fellow travelers on an adventure excursion in northern Canada, one that bore (hopefully not too much) resemblance to the trip described in the book. Another previously published story was written as an opportunity to revisit characters from Atwood's novel, THE ROBBER BRIDE,and another (probably the most amorphous story of the bunch) was published in a McSweeney's collection of strange tales edited by Michael Chabon.
But even those familiar with these stories will find plenty more to discover here. Atwood's collection opens, for example, with a set of three loosely linked stories, all illustrating the advance of age and the lingering regrets of youth. In the opening story, "Alphinland," an older woman who has experienced surprising success with her creation of a fantasy series comes to terms with the death of her husband, all the time remembering an earlier love affair with a poet who questioned her talent. In the second story, we meet that poet, Gavin, now an old man himself, bristling at the controlling actions of his much-younger wife and the attentions of a young interviewer, who, it turns out, is actually more interested in the creator of Alphinland than she is in the poet. And in the third story, "Dark Lady," we meet Gavin's erstwhile muse, who encounters Gavin's other lady loves at the poet's funeral.
Some stories, such as "The Freeze-Dried Groom," offer unsettling imagery. Others, like "The Dead Hand Loves You," participate in Atwood's seeming interest in the passage of time. Throughout, her wry voice and out-of-the-blue humor are evident. STONE MATTRESS would serve as an excellent introduction to Atwood's work for readers new to her fiction, or at least to her short fiction. For those who have already come to know and love her work, it demonstrates the breadth of her talents and the depth of her thoughtful exploration of topics and themes.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 19, 2014