Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood, is a collection of nine short stories, some of which are standalone and others interlinked. It opens with a triptych involving the writer of a highly successful fantasy series and her one time boyfriend who became a moderately successful poet. The jealousies and elitism of the literary world feature. There is desire for recognition and esteem but also commercial success.
Throughout the collection the protagonists are mostly elderly, looking back over their lives with a degree of regret. It is refreshing to have older people portrayed fully rounded – as more than a stereotype or the first impression they give.
The first story is Alphinland in which Constance is mourning the recent death of her husband, Ewan. An ice storm is blowing in and, for the first time, she must deal with the practicalities of the event herself. She still hears Ewan talk to her, offering advice that is prescient. Constance welcomes this interaction. When alive Ewan had been supportive if somewhat condescending of her achievements. She is a prolific author whose books have been developed on multiple media including a popular on line game. Despite its success, her work has long been derided by the literary establishment. Ewan struggled to take what she did seriously. Constance used it as a means of escape and a way to punish those who hurt her, including the woman she blames for the break up of her first serious relationship with a poet who regarded his own work as far superior.
The second story, Revenant, introduces the reader to Gavin and his much younger third wife, Reynolds. Gavin is bored and frustrated by the way she now treats him – like ‘a dysfunctional pet’. He believes women should ‘labour to be beautiful’, and hankers back to the years when they did so and then fell for his charms, accepting the inevitability of his advances even when forced. He is also frustrated that the poems he now writes are past their best. When a young student arranges to interview him he behaves badly – mainly because it is not his work that is the focus of her research.
The final story in the triptych is Dark Lady in which Jorrie indulges her fixation with other people’s deaths. She lives with her twin brother, Tin, who does his best to steer her wilder impulses away from appearing foolish to a casually critical public audience. When Jorrie spots that an old boyfriend, Gavin Putnam, has died she wishes to attend the funeral. Tin reluctantly agrees to accompany her. It proves an enlightening experience as adversaries come together and long held misconceptions are aired.
Lusus Naturae tells the tale of a child who contracts an illness that turns her into a monster. Aware that having such a being in the family will adversely affect her sister’s future prospects the family fake the monster child’s death. She must then live her life out of sight, something she is content to do. Over time, however, this proves a lonely existence. A quest for a mate puts her in deadly danger.
The Freeze Dried Groom offers up another man who feels frustrated that he cannot indulge his desires for the personal attention of beautiful and compliant women. Sam owns an antique shop, buying the contents of storage units as a means of sourcing stock. He also has a sideline. On the day his wife asks him to leave he finds more than he bargained for inside a newly purchased unit. The prospect of risk with potential reward proves hard to resist.
I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth revisits characters from the author’s novel The Robber Bride. Elderly friends are concerned when an old flame makes a move on the gullible Charis, worrying that he has his eye on her recent inheritance. They had persuaded her to get a dog in the hope it would offer protection. They come to believe that the dog may be more wily than expected.
The Dead Hand Loves You is another tale of a successful writer affected throughout his long life by actions during his college years. Jack Dace is still best known for his first work, a horror story that was subsequently adapted for film. He has never felt quite comfortable with the literary worth of the novel that has provided his wealth, and how he is therefore perceived by those he wishes to impress. He is also resentful that the housemates he had while writing the book have benefited from his material success. He sets out to avenge what he regards as their unfair exploitation.
Stone Mattress is the tale of a serial killer – a woman who has made her fortune by seeking out wealthy but unwell husbands and then bringing about their deaths. Set on an arctic expedition, it was written when the author was on such an adventure as a way of entertaining fellow passengers with a story of how to murder one of their number without getting caught. It is a tale of revenge.
The collection is rounded off with Torching the Dusties, a troubling exploration of what could happen if young people grew so angry with the wealthy elderly, who they blame for making their world so bleak, that they decide to forcibly end their lives. Set in an upmarket care home, the secluded environment is put under siege when protesters cut off supplies and remove staff. The residents rally, but outside the protest is gaining support and momentum.
As may be expected from Margaret Atwood, these stories are skilfully written with many touching but also piercing asides. There is humour and wit, especially around the frustrated entitlement felt by certain men, and the literati. Although I prefer the development and depth of her longer works there is much here that can be dipped into and enjoyed. A well polished, engaging and worthwhile read.
Stone Mattress is published by Bloomsbury.