After seeing it in the list of nominations for Best Fiction in the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards, I decided to pick up Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress from the university library. The only other novel I have ever read by Atwood is her well-known classic The Handmaid's Tale, which I was pretty ambivalent towards. With that being said, I wasn't really sure what to expect from Atwood's most recent publication.
Genre, Themes, History: Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories or tales, most of which can stand alone. As explained in the acknowledgments, some of the stories have been published previously, while others are tales about other tales. The first three, Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady, are linked together and include characters that knew each other long ago and are being reunited through various events. And with the exception of Lusus Naturae, and perhaps also The Freeze-Dried Groom, each story includes characters that would be considered senior citizens, something I probably only noticed because of my tendency towards young adult fiction, or at least books that don't center around characters that are beyond retirement age. But the stories don't all deal with death and life and reflection as you might think they would. Many of the stories are slightly dark in humor, if they have any humor at all, and don't deal with kindly old grandmas and grandpas that are spending the rest of their years knitting and fishing. Many of them are writers, one is a gold-digging black widow, and most have some major character flaw that have placed them in the situation they're in. There were moments where I was ready to label this as a horror story collection because there are moments when things become incredibly scary (and Torching the Dusties is downright haunting). And there are other moments when things become unreal or part fantasy. But Atwood introduces these elements in such a way that makes it all seem almost natural, like it is what is supposed to happen.
My Verdict: As with most short story collections, not every single one was a revelation. But the ones that are certainly make up for the ones that aren't. Simply put, Atwood knows how to tell a good story. Part of me was hoping that the ongoing storyline that reached across Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady would continue throughout the other six stories in the book, but no such luck. However, it is just as well as most of the other six were still incredibly enjoyable and left me wanting more. And fortunately, the stories that didn't exactly leave me wanting more tended to be shorter and easier to breeze past. Even if you're like me and have a tendency to skip over short story collections, I recommend picking up this particular collection. It is just shy of 300 pages and won't take up too much of your time.
Must Read: My personal favorite would be the storyline that extends through Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady. They are linked beautifully and each new reveal only made we want the story to continue on longer.
Okay to Miss: My least favorite was Lusus Naturae. Fortunately, it is also the shortest of the nine and an incredibly fast read.
Recommended Reading: It is only natural that I would recommend The Handmaid's Tale as it is the only other Atwood book I have read. However, I will also recommend The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. Like Atwood, Walton manages to include elements of fantasy and makes them appear as a natural part of the story, as opposed to something out of the ordinary.