You get some idea of the fun Margaret Atwood had writing her latest book of short stories, Stone Mattress, from inspired titles such as “The Freeze-Dried Groom” and “The Dead Hand Loves You”, and all nine tales in this collection are darkly funny. Most are told from the point of view of a character around the age of Atwood herself, who recently celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday, and bring her customary sharp wit and wryly perceptive observations to the big themes of aging, death, murder, and revenge.
Many people find the brevity of the short story form dissatisfying, but Margaret Atwood succeeds in skilfully breathing life into her characters, so that they become real people readers can believe in. Her writing is so evocative and flawlessly constructed that it seems she just sat at her desk and it simply flowed from her to the page perfectly crafted. Perhaps after fifty years and as many books it is that easy for her, but probably one of her greatest skills is making it look that easy. No doubt she also has moments when she struggles, as most writers do, times when she has to ‘crumple and toss’, as she said recently:
“Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt? And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream. Once you’re in, keep going. You may have to crumple and toss, but we all do that. Courage! I think that is what’s most required.”
I dithered for a long time before having the courage to embark on my novel, because I’d already written two failed attempts in my twenties, and so I knew all too well what lay ahead. But having written a lot of short stories since then, some of which were published, I also felt I’d learnt enough to try again, and eventually I flopped back into that vast, icy lake. There was a lot of crumpling and tossing along the way, but a few weeks ago I finally made it to the other shore. And if in the end nothing more comes of this novel than the others, at least I managed to do that.