“These nine tales owe a debt to tales through the ages. Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days.” (p. 271) Margaret Atwood's new book, Stone Mattress, takes readers on a journey of self-discovery through nine thought-provoking tales focused on aging and dying.
The first three tales are intricately connected by three women and their relationships with the aging egotistical poet Gavin Putnam. In “Alphinland,” the grieving widow Constance faces an ice storm in Toronto as she remembers her marriage and the tumultuous years of her affair with Gavin. Constance has become a celebrity in her own right as the author of the
Alphinland stories, based on a mythical kingdom reminiscent of The Game of Thrones. In “Revenant,” Gavin struggles with writer’s block as he deals with Reynolds, his much younger wife, and a graduate student who wants to interview him about his writing career. Finally in “Dark Lady,” elderly Jorrie remembers her affair with Gavin and the sonnet that he wrote about her as she reads the daily obituary page.
Two of the tales in Stone Mattress focus on remembering youthful mistakes. In “The Dead Hand Loves You,” Jack Dace agonizes over a contract to share royalties for his horror story with his university roommates. It became an international horror classic. Now that he is aging, he wants to rectify his past mistake. In the title story “Stone Mattress,” aging beauty Verna wants to snag yet another rich, elderly husband on an Arctic cruise. Instead, she meets Bob Goreham, the high school classmate who raped her and ruined her life. Will she take the opportunity get her revenge by killing him on a remote ice field?
Stone Mattress is a wonderful vehicle for exploring the theme of surviving life’s challenges. This is Margaret Atwood’s 55th book. Her career has spanned over four decades including poetry, novels, science fiction, literary criticism and children’s books. She has won numerous awards such as the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award. The final story in Stone Mattress, “Torching the Dusties,” sums up the controversial survival instincts of the elderly. Nearly blind Wilma and her loyal companion Tobias are trapped in a nursing home surrounded by a mob of anti-elderly protestors.
“The elderly used to bow out graceful to make room for young mouths by walking into the snow or being carried up mountainsides and left there.” (p. 257)
Atwood’s amazing tales are definitely written to make readers consider their own
lives from a new perspective as they contemplate their own mortality.