This was my first time reading a short story collection by Margaret Atwood and after the phenomenal 20’th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill, I was surprised by the very natural – almost memoir-type of writing some of the stories.
“When my mother was very small, someone gave her a basket of baby chicks for Easter. They all died.”
You know you will have a good read when a story starts like this. But it got a bit boring and then a bit exciting, and then a bit boring again, and then boom – in the middle of the book, this gem of a story called “Bluebeard’s egg” which left almost a visceral reaction show on my face as I was reading it. I loved it. And then a bit of boredom again. All in all, the book is a 5/10, more stories about relationships, growing up and growing apart.
This collection of Atwood stories includes:
- Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother
- Hurricane Hazel
- Bluebeard’s Egg
- Spring Song of the Frogs
- Scarlet Ibis
- The Salt Garden
- The Sin Eater
- The Sunrise
- Unearthing Suite
“There are some women who seem to be born without fear, just as there are people who are born without the ability to feel pain. The painless ones go around putting their hands on hot stoves, freezing their feet to the point of gangrene, scalding the linings of their throats with boiling coffee, because there is no warning anguish. Evolution does not favor them. So too perhaps with the fearless women, because there aren’t very many of them around. I myself have known only two.”
Why is it whenever I read anything from Margaret Atwood, I can almost feel her talking next to me, smoking a cigarette, looking wistful. She must have been (and still is by all accounts) a marvellous woman. Headstrong, decisive, let down by the men in her life (depicted as jobless poets or Franks). If you’re a woman, and you’re having a shitty relationship with a man, this book will either depress the hell out of you or it will make you feel better to know that someone else knows how it feels to be a woman in a shitty relationship.
“He wants to see, he wants to know, only to see and know. I’m aware that it is this mentality, this curiosity, which is responsible for the hydrogen bomb and the imminent demise of civilization and that we would all be better off if we were still at the stone-worshipping stage. Though surely it is not this affable inquisitiveness that should be blamed.”
But not every story was centered around relationships between women and men. “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother” and “Unearthing Suite” focus on parents seen through the eyes of their progeny. It’s interesting to note how the entire book which largely deals with women and their relationships with men, is sandwiched between two stories that deal with parents.
“Have I been conditioned to believe that if I am not solicitous, if I am not forthcoming, if I am not a never-ending cornucopia of entertaining delights, they will take their collections of milk-bottle tops and their mangy one-eared teddy bears and go away into the woods by themselves to play snipers? Probably. What my mother thinks was merely cute may have been lethal.”
There’s definitely a sense of a generation gap when you compare stories. In “Unearthing Suite,” the parents have their relationship down. They’re together. They make it work. The rest of the stories reflect how shitty relationships between men and women are at present.
“My mother has few stories to tell about these times. What I remember from them is the odd look I would sometimes catch in her eyes. It struck me, for the first time in my life, that my mother might be afraid of me. I could not even reassure her, because I was only dimly aware of the nature of her distress, but there must have been something going on in me that was beyond her: at any time I might open my mouth and out would come a language she had never heard before. I had become a visitant from outer space, a time-traveller come back from the future, bearing news of a great disaster.”
These stories are harsh and brutal, almost agonizing to read. “Uglypuss” and “Bluebeard’s Egg” in particular deal with unfaithful men and their betrayal of their relationships with their significant others. In “Uglypuss,” I was thinking it was awesome how Becka was seeking her revenge, but at the same time, it wasn’t. It was sad and terrible how it really turned out.
“The Sunrise” was probably my favorite of all the stories. I think I relate to this one the most. Yvonne’s an independent female artist who has become so disillusioned with men that she can’t love anymore. She just doesn’t have the energy. She keeps a razor blade in her paintbox. Her landlords speculate about her personal life. It’s really nothing what they imagine.
Margaret Atwood is a stellar writer and this book pulls you into the sights, sounds, and scents of cottages in the woods or disordered urban apartments. I would only say that the stories, while beautiful, are also a bit of a downer (or at least most of them are). Atwood deeply understands with the utmost sensitivity the disappointment and heartache of failed relationships and the lapse in communication between people.
Writing with this much depth of perception, she must have had many personal experiences of her own.