[I received a copy of Stone Mattress by its Canadian publisher Random House Canada. This does not affect my opinion of the book.]
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read very many Margaret Atwood books (embarrassing, I know). The only other book I’ve read by her is the Canadian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, which I was incredibly blown away by (you can read my full review of it here – it was my first ever review on this blog!). So, when I heard that there would be a new short story collection coming out, I was immediately intrigued. Now, I feel like I should start this review by saying that I’m not incredibly well-read on the short story front, so I’m not sure if my unfamiliarity with the form was a factor in my enjoyment of the tales as a whole.
As the title suggests, Stone Mattress is made up of nine tales. Some of them are interconnected, some are purely stand-alones. There are a few writerly characters, some characters that have been holding grudges, and characters that have secrets. From the book jacket:
“A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through an ice storm by the voice of her late husband in “Alphinland,” the first of three stories about the romantic entanglements of a small group of writers and artists. In “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” a man who bids on an auctioned storage space has gruesome surprise. In “Lusus Naturae,” a woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. In “Torching the Dusties,” an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome attempts to cope with the little people she sees while a newly formed populist group prepares to burn down her retirement residence. In “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth,” we remeet Tony, Charis, and Roz from The Robber Bride -by years later- as their nemisis recurs in an unexpected form. And in “Stone Mattress,” a long-ago crime is avenged in the Arctic via a 1.9 billion-year-old stromatolite.”
I had mixed feelings about this collection. There were stories that absolutely gripped me (the three interrelated stories, “The Freeze-Dried Groom”, “Torching the Dusties”), but there were also stories that I didn’t really respond to (“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth”). The latter I attribute to my unfamiliarity with short stories and of Atwood’s other works, because I do think that Atwood has interesting ideas and things to say. She was recently on the CBC’s The Next Chapter talking about Stone Mattress, and was quoted saying “There is a reason why religions stress forgiveness. It’s very hard to do.” When I think about the collection in terms of forgiveness, the thread I was looking for to tie all the stories together appeared. It’s true: many of the characters have either trouble forgiving those who have wronged them, or have worked very hard to find it in them to forgive. I think I’m going to have to re-read the stories with that theme in mind and see if my reading experience is better the second time around.
Something that stuck out to me as I was reading the collection was Atwood’s portrayal of men. In these stories, more often than not, the men are seen objectifying women, barely seeing past their physical attributes. If not that, then they’ve done something terrible and misogynistic in their past. While I applaud Atwood’s frank depiction of her male characters, I couldn’t help but hope to see different types of men, ones that perhaps respected women a little bit more. Is this a recurring theme in Atwood’s writing? Not having read very much by her, I’m not sure.
That being said, I do applaud Atwood’s imagination. She is one of Canada’s most prolific writers and I admire her so much for having so many ideas and stories. Even though I couldn’t fully understand or appreciate Stone Mattress, I’m looking forward to reading more from this beloved Canadian icon. (Seriously – she’s so cool.)
Verdict: Overall, I think Stone Mattress would be a wonderful book club book. I am not always the most creative when analyzing texts and would have loved to have someone to discuss these tales with. (This is where you come in, Internet!!) Like I mentioned above, just hearing Atwood talk about the book in terms of forgiveness offered a new way to understand the stories as a whole, and I look forward to hearing different interpretations!
Read if: You’re an Atwood/CanLit fan, enjoy reading short stories, want to find out what exactly a “stone mattress” is.
Are you a Margaret Atwood fan? Have you read Stone Mattress yet? What did you think?