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Margaret Atwood, award-winning author of The Handmaid's Tale, the MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddadam) and a host of other novels, short story and poetry collections (though, really, did I need to introduce her?). More at Atwood's website.
The jacket description says it best: Margaret Atwood turns to short fiction for the first time since her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, with nine tales of acute insight, turbulent relationships, and psychological aberration..." Well said, though I would add "getting older" to the list of themes.
Stone Mattress works quite well, actually.
My recommendations are based on style and subject. They're also story collections as tight and cohesive as Stone Mattress: Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors, Stephen Graham Jones's States of Grace, and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.
The first three tales in this book feature (or heavily allude to) one particular character: Constance Starr, author of the wildly successful Alphinland series of fantasy novels, who grapples with the recent death of her husband, the inevitability of her own mortality, past love affairs and the shift from derision to widespread acceptance of her speculative work. The spirit of this character also seems to travel throughout the collection. She may or may not be a loose doppleganger for Atwood.
Though a good thirty years too young, I pictured Alex Kingston, perhaps best known as Dr. River Song from Doctor Who.
Atwood is a strong proponent of Canadian identity, and thus paints the cold landscape with such beauty and finesse that, despite my aversion to cold climates, I can't help but want to live there.
She sits across the table from him girded for the combat she not doubt expects, her hair scraped severely off her forehead and twisted at the back of her neck like a tourniquet, her rectilinear gold earrings and clank necklace reinforcing the metallic harshness of her decree.
—From "The Freeze-Dried Groom" (my favorite of the nine)
Confession time: prior to reading Stone Mattress, I had not yet ventured into Atwood's fantastic, comical and psychologically astute works, though I'd heard nothing but good things about the author, both from friends and within the critical sphere. I must say, she definitely lives up to the hype, which is particularly refreshing given the duration of her career. Authors sometimes go stale after a time, but with this new publication it is clear Atwood hasn't lost any of the talent and skill that won her all those accolades.
As I mentioned above, this collection is tautly-assembled: it reads almost like a novel, in part because of the recurring characters in the first three stories, as well as a sense that some of the characters in the non-connected tales feel like echoes from the first three (with an absence of redundancy, I might add). But primarily it is the thematic undercurrent of maturity running throughout that concretizes the book. Every character looks into their past in order to make sense of their present: Constance re-examines her relationship with Gavin, the cocksure poet in "Alphinland"; Gavin likewise reminisces on his lingering love for Constance in "Revenant"; Sam maps his unhappy marriage and finds himself on a dangerous path in "The Freeze-Dried Groom"; Jack traces the unfortunate history behind his "international horror classic" in "The Dead Hand Loves You"; and, in the titular tale, Verna confronts a terrible experience from high school, and sets about a murderous course of rectification. The results of this looking-back vary in tone from dark to lighthearted, but in each of the nine tales, moving forward seems to be the only way to go.
The writing here is sharp and superb, but never too showy or distracting to the narratives, which are all intricate and compelling. Furthermore, Atwood has an excellent knack for placing herself in her characters' shoes, living and walking within their sometimes narrowed perspectives, neither outwardly judging them nor wholly embracing them. Stone Mattress is therefore an infinitely rich read, one certain to please old fans, or in my case, make new ones. Definitely pick up this book.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Chris Shultz