Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? An older woman knows. But how much older do you have to get before you acquire that kind of wisdom?
I loved this book. I found that some parts were really familiar and then I realized that some of the story had in fact been used in Moral Disorder and Wilderness Tips. The theme is quite similar. The book follows the lives of three women: Tony, Roz and Charis, all bound together by a fourth – Zenia – who takes immense pleasure in destroying their lives and stealing their men.
The book is about adultery – in all of its forms – and about the men that fall prey or enter willingly into it.
There is also the exploration of the aftermath and how different personality types deal with betrayal better than others.
It’s a big book (568 pages in total) and you might find yourself trying to skim over some detailed past experiences that seem to have nothing in common with the main plot – but believe me, they do. Not only does Margaret Atwood pencil down the lives and chagrins of these three women, she also talks about their mothers – figures that were present or not – and how they dealt with adultery.
It’s definitely a case of past experiences modelling humans into what they are today.
Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins when it begins and nothing’s over when it’s over, and everything needs a preface: a preface, a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary. Still, there are definitive moments, moments we use as references, because they break our sense of continuity, they change the direction of time. We can look at these events and marriages. And wars.
And each woman fights a war with Zenia. A war that spans over decades, a war that draws blood and breaks hearts. A war that leaves causalities and men suffering from PTSD. A toxic war where everything Zenia touches is poisoned.
The question begs: Who is Zenia?
She’s either an orphan from White Russian Jews, on the run from Europe – or maybe her mother was a gypsy, or maybe she was sold as a child to the highest bidder and prostituted for food. She re-invents a tragic story everytime she is asked, and her stories are all so pitiful and so closely related to the other person – that it’s impossible not to feel sorry for her.
She uses this trick as a hook for men and as a defence mechanism against other women.
“I admire you a lot,” he says to Tony. “You’ll always be my best friend. But Zenia needs me.”
“What does she need you for?” says Tony in a small clear voice.
“She’s suicidal,” says West. “You’re the strong one, Tony. You’ve always been so strong.”
“Zenia is as strong as an ox,” says Tony.
“It’s just an act,” says West. “I always knew that about her. She’s a deeply scarred person.”
Deeply scarred , thinks Tony. That can’t be anyone’s vocabulary but Zenia’s. West has been hypnotized: it’s Zenia talking, from the inside of his head. He goes on: “She’s going to fall apart completely unless I do something.”
And Zenia, for boredom or for sadistic pleasure because she could, goes on to steal Tony’s man, Roz’s man and Charis’ man. Three men which are depicted weak and ready to feel more manly by helping out a damsel in distress. Leaving their wives and sanity behind. Once Zenia drops them, they become empty shells, husks, shadows of what they once were, like invalids with a piece of their soul missing. Roz’s husband commits suicide on a lake shortly after Zenia is found dead (she actually faked her death).
It’s possible that Zenia’s obsession was having somebody else’s preciousness. Tony loved West, so she took him.
“No,” says Zenia, with a hint of impatience. “I mean, what do you want to do with your life? What’s your obsession?” Obsession . Tony doesn’t know anyone who talks like that. Only criminals and creepy people have obsessions, and if you have one yourself you aren’t supposed to admit to it.
And then maybe Zenia became Tony’s obsession. She was already the center of every party, the talk of the school that they both attended. She stood out. She formulated her environment so that she stood out if that could be done.
All the others, in their black, sink into the black background of the walls. Zenia stands out: her face and hands and torso swim against the darkness, among the white chrysanthemums, as if disembodied and legless. She must have thought it all out beforehand, Tony realizes – how she would glow in the dark like an all-night gas station, or – to be honest – like the moon.
Tony feels herself being sucked back, pushed back into the black enamel of the wall. Very beautiful people have that effect, she thinks: they obliterate you. In the presence of Zenia she feels more than small and absurd: she feels non-existent.
Tony is the first to feel it – the jealousy, the awe, the admiration. She respects Zenia for being different, for being so visible. She is fascinated by her.
Brilliant, and also fearsome. Wolfish, feral, beyond the pale.
And Zenia uses the opportunity to re-model Tony. She switches her normal glasses with some big ones saying that beauty is supposed to be unbalanced, exaggerated and filled with attention. Zenia has found out who she was quite early in life and she uses that to her advantage. She makes Tony wear oversized sweaters even though they don’t suit her tiny frame.
“I look like a stick,” she says. “I look ten!” “Slender,” says Zenia. “Juvenile. Some men like that.” “Then they’re warped,” says Tony.
“Listen to me, Antonia,” says Zenia seriously. “All men are warped. This is something you must never forget.”
This friendship that the two girls share seems quite normal on the outside. Two girlfriends trading secrets. Except Zenia is on a mission to find out everything she can from Tony. Who she was, who her mother was, why did Tony’s mother leave her and her father, everything.
She can see it’s a painful subject for Tony, but this doesn’t deter her; if anything it spurs her on. She pushes and prods and makes all the right noises, curious and amazed, horrified, indulgent, and relentless, and pulls Tony inside out like a sock.
And as Tony talks about her past, we find out that she liked to spell things backwards, that she had an imaginary twin “TNOMERF YNOT” which was everything she wasn’t. In her imagination, she was brave, outgoing and right handed, when Tony was left-handed and ashamed of it.
Tihs . She writes these words with fear and awe, but also with a superstitious relish. They are Tnomerf Ynot words. They make her feel powerful, in charge of something. She breathes and writes and rubs out, breathes and writes. The air is unfresh, filled with the dry, burnt smell of the chintz curtains. All the time she’s writing, she’s listening to the silence of the house behind her. She’s used to silences: she can distinguish between full silences and empty ones, between those that come before and those that come after. Just because there’s a silence it doesn’t mean that nothing is going on.
As it turns out, her lovely mother was having an affair with one of her dad’s co-workers. She loved the excitement that the affair offered compared to her domestic boredom, not the man himself (as the pictures proved). She changed men as she got older, but she never returned home. It’s possible that she never really loved her daughter.
She never says “I truly, truly love you.” It’s always Mother , as if Mother is someone else. Rehtom , thinks Tony. Evol . The metronome ticks on.
When Tony’s mother finally departs to a sunny part of the country, she leaves a note behind:
Darling, you know I would like to take you with me but I can’t right now. When you are older you will understand why. Be a good girl and do well in school. I will write you lots. Your Mother who loves you very much. P.S. See you soon!
(Tony kept this note, and marvelled over it later, when she was grown up. As an explanation it was of course inadequate. Also, nothing in it was true. To begin with, Tony was not darling . The only people who were darling , for Anthea, were men, and sometimes women if she was annoyed with them. She didn’t want to take Tony with her: if she’d wanted to she would have done it, because she mostly did what she wanted. She didn’t write Tony lots, she didn’t love her very much, and she didn’t see her soon. And although Tony did get older, she did not understand why.)
After her mother left, Tony was left alone with her father – and they didn’t really have anything in common.
He would come into Tony’s room and sit there watching her while she did her homework, as if he wanted her to say something to him. But by this time she was older and more hardened, and she expected nothing much from him. She had ceased to consider him her responsibility; she found him simply an irritating interruption. He was much less interesting than the siege techniques of Julius Caesar, which she was studying in Latin. Her father’s suffering wore her out: it was too flat, it was too wordless, it was too powerless, it was too much like her own.
This is where Tony starts discovering her interest in historical wars. And her passion grows into a full-blown career when she is older. After Zenia leaves her with broken scraps and a lighter bank account.
Zenia is a manipulative con-artist. She does not study, she starts copying Tony’s homework in school, she stops going to school altogether, she is late with her rent and expects Tony to cover her everytime she and West are about to get kicked out. (If it was me, I would have drawn a line at the high number of loans with no return date..)
But Tony is kind-hearted and Tony loves West and Tony does not want to appear un-generous when she has a small inheritance left over from her mother and father. And Zenia, knowing all of this, takes full advantage. The sums are always small at first and then higher and higher.
But Tony! We had to eat! You don’t know what it’s like, to be hungry. You just don’t get it! You don’t know what it’s like to have no money at all!
One evening she bursts crying that she has a history paper due the next day and she needs Tony’s help. What she meant was that she wanted Tony to write her paper on a deadline. (Again, any normal person would have told her – what the hell have you been doing that you didn’t write your paper? Or being put on the spot would probably alter people’s behaviour. Would you have done this for a friend?)
Armed with the knowledge that Tony cheated during her final year in Uni (even though it wasn’t for her own benefit), Zenia goes into Tony’s bedroom like a thief at night and blackmails Tony into giving her a grand or she will tell the university about what she did (even though it was her idea). I was gasping at this point at the level of audacity! How can someone be such a viper!?
Zenia proceeds to disappear and leaves behind a rumor that Tony actually was borrowing money from her and not the other way around and puts her in a bad spot with heart-broken West.
How could he have won this battle? Hard to say. By avoiding recklessness? By drawing the enemy out first to estimate its strength? Strength and cunning are both essential, but each without the other is valueless. Tony herself, lacking strength, will have to rely on cunning. In order to defeat Zenia she will have to become Zenia, at least enough to anticipate her next move. It would help if she knew what Zenia wanted.
Charis’s story with Zenia
Charis is the ultimate free and loving soul. Imagine a hippie chick, believing in the restorative power of nature, vegetarian and raising her own hens for eggs and doing yoga for money. Charis was in the same school as Tony and Zenia but they moved in different circles. So when Zenia appears at her yoga class looking ill, claiming that she’s suffering from cancer and has nowhere to go, Charis takes her in, to the displeasure of the live-in boyfriend. Charis had a boyfriend who was mostly mooching off her – taking her money, her food and giving in return just the occasional sex or doing rebellion meetings in her tiny rented house. He escaped the Vietnam war enrolment and went to Canada as a refugee but he’s hiding from the law and from the border agencies.
Charis now has one man she loves very much and one woman she hasn’t met in ages living under her roof and not contributing anything towards the expenses. She makes cabbage juice and vitamin boosts for the sick Zenia and tries to keep the peace in the household. She does yoga and tries to keep her boyfriend happy. And Zenia. And Zenia talks about her gypsy past, about her mis-carriage, about her cancer and poor Charis is being suckered in.
“I’m a terrible person,” Zenia would tell Charis, her voice tremulous. “I’m not worth all this trouble.” “Oh, don’t say that,” Charis would say. “We all have those feelings. They’re from the shadow side. Think of the best things about yourself.” Zenia would reward her with a little wavering smile. “What if there isn’t anything?” she would say weakly.
Never does Charis ask to see Zenia’s scar. Never does she doubts her story or her motives.. Maybe if she did, her boyfriend didn’t see it before her.. It seems to me that’s almost a saint in her behaviour. Never a bad word, never attracting terrible kharma. She works or the three of them starve.
I have to work or else we don ’t eat? That doesn’t go over too well: he thinks it’s a criticism of him because he doesn’t have a job, and then he sulks. He prefers to believe that she’s like a lily of the field; that she neither toils nor spins; that bacon and coffee are simply produced by her, like leaves from a tree.
When she finds out she’s pregnant, she’s over the moon and can’t wait to tell her lover and kindly ask Zenia to move out so she can use her bedroom as a baby room. All hell breaks loose as Zenia shows her true colours and runs off with Charis’s husband the following night. Also all her chicken are killed.
Charis is going through a break-down and we find out who the darker version of Charis is. When she was young, her mother left her with her grandmother and then committed suicide.
Her mother couldn’t help it. It was her nerves.
Her aunt and uncle became her legal guardians and took her away from her grandmother’s care. Under their roof, Charis experienced sexual abuse from her uncle for years until her period came. She tried to tell her aunt what was going on but her aunt called her a liar and compared her to her no-good mother. It all comes back to mothers.. That’s why Charis is frigid, scared of sex, and happy to be with any man who won’t pressure her too much.
Tony and Roz come to her help and the Zenia-hating club has now a new member.
What I loved best in this section was how Charis’s acquaintance to Zenia was explained in a few sentences:
The history of Charis and Zenia began on a Wednesday in the first week of November in the first year of the seventies. Seventy . Charis finds both parts of this number significant, the seven and the zero as well. A zero always means the beginning of something and the end as well, because it is omega: a circular self-contained O, the entrance to a tunnel or the exit from one, an end that is also a beginning, because although that year saw the beginning of the end of Billy, it was also the year her daughter August began to begin. And seven is a prime number, composed of a four and a three – or two threes and a one, which Charis prefers because threes are graceful pyramids as well as Goddess numbers, and fours are merely box-like squares.
Tony has thought a lot about Zenia and has decided that Zenia likes challenges. She likes breaking and entering, she likes taking things that aren’t hers. Billy, like West, was just target practice. She probably has a row of men’s dicks nailed to her wall, like stuffed animal heads.
Roz’s story with Zenia
“Don’t show what you’re thinking,” they tell her. “Play close to your chest. Know when to fold.”
Roz has had plenty of warning about Zenia. Roz knew what type of snake she was and how demented this woman behaved. But she still agreed to meet her when Zenia told her she knew her father was a war hero. She probably gathered loads of information beforehand from different magazine articles so that she could hit Roz with a well designed made up story about how her father was heroic and brave during the war. Roz desperately wanted to believe everything she said for the simple reason that she stopped thinking her father was a war hero after she found out that him and his buddies stole as much as the Germans did and sold it all back for profit after the war had ended.
The reason why Roz was really well off was because her father brought them into new money. She went to a private school, she lived in a large mansion. She married a young lawyer who was interested in her despite her plumpness. She has other qualities which she found during a stay in camp.
Roz can see that she will never be prettier, daintier, thinner, sexier, or harder to impress than these girls are. She decides instead to be smarter, funnier, and richer, and once she has managed that they can all kiss her fanny.
She invests a bit in a woman’s magazine and she shows real skill in management and business. She doesn’t yet have a profit but this is when Zenia enters the picture and the business and wants a share of whatever Roz has – even the memories of her dead father.
So I used to pretend that your father was my father, and that some day he would come to get me, and I’d move into his house. I wasn’t even sure where he lived.”
I mean, you’ve got all this, you’ve got a home, a husband, you’ve got your kids. You’re a family, you’ve got solid ground under your feet. I’ve never had any of that, I’ve never fitted in. I’ve lived out of a suitcase, all my life; even now it’s hand-to-mouth, that’s what freelancing means, and I’m running out of energy, you know? There’s just no base, there’s no permanence!”
Roz, of course, has no idea. She has a cushioned life, she has twin girls and a son who’s just turned 20. She’s been married with a man (Mitch) she loves (even though he had stepped from the well lit path of marriage a few times and had flings with bimboes). From Roz’s own history, she knows that in order to keep a marriage working, a woman should not make a big deal out of mistresses, because in the end, the husband always knows where home is.
She’d read about mistresses in the murder mysteries. Mistress was the word she preferred, because it was more elevated than the other words available: “floozie,” “whore,” “easy lay.” Those other words implied nothing but legs apart, loose flabby legs at that – weak legs, legs that did nothing but lie there, legs for sale – and smells, and random coupling, and sexual goo. Whereas mistress hinted at a certain refinement, an expensive wardrobe, a well-furnished establishment, and also at the power and cunning and beauty it took to get such things.
In Mitch’s cosmology Roz’s body represents possessions, solidity, the domestic virtues, hearth and home, long usage. Mother-of-his-children. The den. Whereas whatever other body may currently be occupying his field of vision will have other nouns attached to it: adventure, youth, freedom, the unknown, sex without strings. When the pendulum swings back – when that other body starts representing complications, decisions, demands, sulkiness, and weepy scenes – then it will be Roz’s turn again. This has been the pattern.
Roz is an excellent observer. She always knows when her husband is having an affair as his office hours become longer, he draws his belly in before walking in front of a mirror, he uses different aftershave.
The numbers of conferences he goes to, the numbers of showers he takes, the amount he whistles in them, the quantity and kind of aftershave he uses and the places where he splashes it – the groin is a sure giveaway – such things are minutely observed by Roz, looking pleasantly out of her indulgent eyes, bristling like a bottle-brush within.
Does Roz secretly enjoy all this? She didn’t at first. The very first time it happened she felt scooped out, disjointed, scorned and betrayed, crushed by bulldozers. She felt worthless, useless, sexless. She thought she would die. But she’s developed a knack, and therefore a taste. It’s the same as a business negotiation or a poker game. She’s always been a whiz at poker. You have to know when to up the stakes, when to call a bluff, when to fold. So she does enjoy it, some. It’s hard not to enjoy something you’re good at.
But Mitch having an affair with Zenia doesn’t even cross Roz’s mind. There are none of the tell-tell signs and when they are both in a room together, they don’t seem to even make eye contact let alone talk to each other. But Zenia has set her eyes on handsome Mitch and she wants Mitch and she wants money. So she forges Mitch’s signature on 50 cheques and then runs off with 50,000 dollars all the way to London, leaving Mitch in her wake, like a lost puppy. Mitch attempts to reconcile with Roz after he left her to very openly live with Zenia but Roz shows some spine and refuses to take him back. Mitch tries to find Zenia in London and he gets so close that Zenia concocts a plan where she “dies”. Mitch shortly after the funeral drowns in a lake in a suspected suicide.
Roz’s heart hardens. It ceases to burn and drip. The rent in her chest closes over it. She can feel an invisible hand there, tight as a bandage, holding her body shut. That’s it, she thinks. That finally tears it. She buys five murder novels and takes a week off, and goes to Florida, and lies in the sun crying.
This was all right for Roz until Zenia came along. Zenia took advantage of her silly pride and fooled around right under her nose.
It’s only after Zenia returns from the dead and into the three women’s lives that they are all able to face up to her (like the final boss in a battle) and face their own demons and obsessions. Zenia’s been everywhere and she’s done everything and none of it good. She’s on the run from some really bad men and she tries to grab shelter or money from either of the three women and when she is denied, she turns spiteful and spells their flaws and issues without holding anything back. She mixes some lies with the rest because if you hear a truth – won’t you also believe the lie?
Charis has a flash where she sees herself (as Karen) pushing Zenia through the window and starts crying. In order to calm her down, the three women go back to the hotel where Zenia was only to find her dead at the bottom of a very tall building.
So now Zenia is History. No: now Zenia is gone. She is lost and gone forever. She’s a scattering of dust, blown on the wind like spores; she’s an invisible cloud of viruses, a few molecules, dispersing. She will only be history if Tony chooses to shape her into history. At the moment she is formless, a broken mosaic; the fragments of her are in Tony’s hands, because she is dead, and all of the dead are in the hands of the living.
There is a lesson in all of this. About war and battles and losers and winners. About decency and goodness. About cause and effect.
Goodness in any case is problematic, since an action can be good in intent but evil in result, witness missionaries. This is why Tony prefers battles: in a battle there are right actions and wrong actions, and you can tell them apart by who wins.
Zenia has created some real damage in all of the three women’s lives – but only because damage could be caused. There was space for it. And as Charis puts it, she was their friend, even though her presence was toxic. She lead them to inner growth and strong development.
Zenia was a tumour, but she was also a major part of Roz’s life, and her life is past the midpoint. Not soon, but sooner than she wants, she’ll begin to set like the sun, to dwindle. She feels something else she never thought she would feel, towards Zenia. Oddly enough, it’s gratitude. What for? Who knows? But that’s what she feels.
It all comes down to the fact that Zenia wanted something she couldn’t have. And fought a war to get it – just like the people in the olden age.
Who was the enemy? What past wrong was she seeking to avenge? Where was her battlefield? Not in any one place. It was in the air all around, it was in the texture of the world itself; or it was nowhere visible, it was in among the neurons, the tiny incandescent fires of the brain that flash up and burn out.
10/10 will definitely read again..