My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Margaret Atwood’s collection of nine short stories retains her incredible ability with the written language. The writing cannot be faulted, but the collection is awash in quiet tragedy. Furthermore, when the first several stories are not stand-alone but overlapping narratives, but all the following are utterly separate the book feels… well, like half a book pasted together with a bunch of random stories.
I hesitate to say I didn’t like Stone Mattress–with such memorable and haunting prose, how couldn’t I?–but this maybe wasn’t the right time for me to read a book so sad.
Whether intentional or not, all the stories in this collection are threaded through with the slow tragedies and indignities of old age. And there are many: lost memories, lost sex drives, lost eyesight, lost independence, lost purpose, lost spouses… The losses weigh heavily.
Even the stories supposedly not at all about old age, such as “Lucus Naturae,” could be read as being about old age and its unstoppable reach, as insidious as fear of the different and the strange. And just as final in the end.
As I said, it’s not a bad time for me to read about old people being attacked by the young, their homes burned to make room for the younger, bitter generation. It’s not a good time to read about an old writer who has become unhinged from reality, choosing instead of let herself be dissolved into the fantasy land she spent her life creating. But then, is there ever a good time?
My grandfather passed away suddenly recently, and I finally got to visit my other grandfather, who is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and could not remember who I am or why I was there. Between these two experiences, Stone Mattress is a very raw and close collection for me. It’s too much like the real tragedies I noticed in both situations.
There aren’t many books that tackle the hoary edges of time. We often assume, as a culture, that old age is the end of the line, that all stories must be told past-tense. For that reason, that bravery, Stone Mattress is a welcome treatise…even if I’m not ready to think on its meanings and significance. When you’re in a suitably contemplative mood, muster your strength and try this collection.