A matter of perspective

November 16, 2014 12:37 AM

Margaret Atwood’s collection of nine tales is dark, humorous and leaves the reader with much food for thought

WHAT CAN be humorous about aged twins getting ready for a funeral? Well, if one of them is “way too Undead with her present-day skin tone, which is lacking in glow despite the tan-coloured foundation and the sparkly bronze mineral-elements powder she so assiduously applies, the poor deluded wretch” and the other looks like the total image of an “alarmed skunk trapped in the floodlights after an encounter with a ketchup bottle”, crossing his fingers about a blood-coloured blotch on his hair, hoping “he will not be accused of elder bashing”.

‘Darkly humorous’ and ‘seriously playful’, proclaims the cover of Margaret Atwood’s new book, Stone Mattress. What the subsequent pages reveal is the absolute fun Atwood must have had writing the nine tales, which promise to be an equal delight for readers.

Almost all the tales have a touch of the macabre, but Atwood weaves in another thread, that of old age. Playfully throwing up the vagaries of old age in what she emphatically claims to be tales, even tales about tales, but not stories, she leaves it to the reader to detect the undercurrent of pathos. Interestingly, Atwood also throws in a profusion of writers, even if they pen down fantasy or ridiculous horror, and are overnight successes after a life that is humdrum.

In her brilliant prose, Atwood manages to create suspense and evoke intense interest in each and every tale, reminiscent of the Booker-winning The Blind Assassin. What happens after a junk collector discovers a ‘freeze-dried wedding’, including the groom, in a lot he wins in an auction? What is the fate of a grotesque woman, born with a genetic abnormality, when she experiences lust? Will a recently-widowed old lady keep hearing her dead husband’s voice? And will a chance encounter with the man who drastically changed a woman’s life result in murder?

Atwood will always give her readers food for thought, be it the in-your-face The Handmaid’s Tale or her sarcastic, but chillingly plausible portrayal of the apocalypse in her trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. The meticulous planning that an inmate of a retirement home does to sneak away to safety with his companion, as they watch their mates being torched alive by protesters, is an apt ending to the book, bringing to the fore the utter helplessness with which many are resigned to end their lives.

Atwood leaves the reader with the option of adopting a perspective—either to chuckle at the gaudy face over-sprayed with golden powder, or acknowledge the inevitable finality of the dusk of life and the unsuccessful struggle against age, despite the firm proclamation of “you’re only as old as you feel”. So here’s food for thought: are the twilight years also a metaphor for the macabre?

Stone Mattress
Margaret Atwood
Bloomsbury
R473
Pp 288

By Ivinder Gill

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