The Tent by Margaret Atwood

In this delightful mélange of short fiction, Margaret Atwood pushes the boundaries of form in intriguing directions. Alongside meditations on warlords, cat heaven, and orphans, she offers a sly pep talk to the ambitious young, laments the proliferation of photos of oneself, imagines an apocalypse of worms, and recalls Helen of Troy’s childhood Kool-Aid stand. In the title fable, a writer huddled inside a tent of paper engages in doodling as self-defense, scribbling on the walls in a frantic attempt to keep out encroaching horrors. Adorned with her own playful illustrations, The Tent is replete with Atwood’s droll humor, keen insight, and lyric brilliance.

Time folds you in its arms and gives you one last kiss, and then it flattens you out and folds you up and tucks you away until it’s time for you to become someone else’s past time, and then time folds again.

I loved this book but I found it way too short. I finished it in less than an hour and I was left craving for more. The short stories are lovely and some of them like the poetry for a mother left me with goosebumps.

The writing style is perfect Margaret Atwood but there were some stories which I can’t call them proper stories – they were more notes and thoughts with no direction or sense. I liked the heavily metaphored story of “The Tent” after which this collection is named and I liked “It’s Not Easy Being Half Divine” which made me chuckle. “Cat Heaven” also got me feeling giddy when I saw the irony of heaven’s cats being able to play with the souls of the humans trapped in their hell as mice.

All of the stories deal with humans, animals and most of all – feelings – loss, inadequacy, hope. They’re all connected – first inkling I got was the midriff section complaint being replicated from one story to another – and they seem to follow each other quite logically. She starts the book with a notion of abandoning the idea of a life story. Of not writing about your childhood, etc., and freeing yourself of those details to get to the essence of a self-portrait – a brain-portrait, if you will. And then she ends the books with the story of a writer in a paper tent in the middle of the wilderness surrounded by red-eyed beasts. The writer writes obsessively on the walls of the paper tent as a form of comfort and protection, and when the paper tent burns down, the writer keeps on writing “because what else can you do?”

It’s obviously brilliant but needed more of that brilliance to be accessible for an extra star.

Bring Back Mom: An Invocation*



Bring back Mom,
bread-baking Mom, in her crisp gingham apron
just like the aprons we sewed for her
in our Home Economics classes
and gave to her for a surprise
on Mother’s Day—


Mom, who didn’t have a job
because why would she need one,
who made our school lunches—
the tuna sandwich, the apple,
the oatmeal cookies wrapped in wax paper—
with the rubber band she’d saved in a jar;
who was always home when we got there
doing the ironing
or something equally boring,
who smiled the weak smile of a trapped drudge
as we slid in past her,
heading for the phone,
filled with surliness and contempt
and the resolve never to be like her.


Bring back Mom.
who wanted to be a concert pianist
but never had the chance
and made us take piano lessons,
which we resented—


Mom, whose aspic rings
and Jello salads we ate with greed,
though later derided—
pot-roasting Mom, expert with onions
though anxious in the face of garlic,
who received a brand-new frying pan
from us each Christmas—
just what she wanted—


Mom, her dark lipsticked mouth
smiling in the black-and-white
soap ads, the Aspirin ads, the toilet paper ads,
Mom, with her secret life
of headaches and stained washing
and irritated membranes—
Mom, who knew the dirt,
and hid the dirt, and did the dirty work,
and never saw herself
or us as clean enough—


and who believed
that there was other dirt
you shouldn’t tell to children,
and didn’t tell it,
which was dangerous only later.


We miss you, Mom,
though you were reviled to great profit
in magazines and books
for ruining your children
—that would be us—
by not loving them enough,
by loving them too much,
by wanting too much love from them,
by some failure of love—


(Mom, whose husband left her
for his secretary and paid alimony,
Mom, who drank in solitude
in the afternoons, watching TV,
who dyed her hair an implausible
shade of red, who flirted
with her friends’ husbands at parties,
trying with all her might
not to sink below the line
between chin up and despair—


and who was carted away
and locked up, because one day
she began screaming and wouldn’t stop,
and did something very bad
with the kitchen scissors—


But that wasn’t you, not you, not
the Mom we had in mind, it was
the nutty lady down the street—
it was just some lady
who became a casualty
of unseen accidents,
and then a lurid story…)


Come back, come back, oh Mom,
from craziness or death
or our own damaged memory—
appear as you were:


Queen of the waffle iron,
generous dispenser of toothpaste,
sorceress of Mercurochrome,
player of games of smoky bridge
at which you won second-prize dishtowels,
brooder over the darning egg
that hatched nothing but socks,
boiler of horrible porridge—
climb back onto the cake-mix package,
look brisk and competent, the way you used to—

If only we could call you—
Here Mom, Here Mom—
and you would come clip-clopping
on your daytime Cuban heels,
smelling of sink and lilac,
(your bum encased in the foundation garment
you’d peel off at night
with a sigh like a marsh exhaling),
saying, What is it now,
and we could catch you
in a net, and cage you
in your bungalow, where you belong,
and make you stay—


Then everything would be all right
the way it was when we could play
till after dark on spring evenings,
then sleep without fear
because you threw yourself in front of the fear
and stopped it with your body—


And there you’ll be, in your cotton housecoat,
holding a wooden peg
between your teeth, as the washing flaps
on the clothesline you once briefly considered
hanging yourself with—


but forget that! There you’ll be,
singing a song of your own youth
as though no time has passed,
and we can be careless again,
and embarrassed by you,
and ignore you as we used to,


and the holes in the world will be mended.

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