It’s hard to track the career of Margaret Atwood. She gets pinned down sometimes as a sci-fi writer, and fairly so, because of The Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake/MadAddam trilogy. But I often forget just how good she is at strange, off-center novels that talk about contemporary life. This is a tale modeled after the fairy tale, The Robber Bridegroom, about a thief who lures young women to their doom in his forest lair. In this novel, we start with a funeral in which a group of women are dealing with the ashes of who seems to be their friend. As we get further and further into the story, it’s more and more clear that we are dealing with toxic narcissism on a grand scale.
A story: I am not that susceptible to a narcissist. I am not immune to other types, but I got lucky there. But I do have people close to me who are deeply susceptible, so I have seen and heard some of the ways it functions. Reading this novel could be a harrowing experience that hopefully opens up to be a cathartic experience for those who are.
Otherwise, the novel is a good illustration of how toxicity functions particularly in female friendships or how a friendship can be entirely formed from toxicity at times. Although this story is not allegorical or fairy-like, the main women do exist along a kind of almost archetypal scale for educated western white women. Their interactions with the title character, who swoops into their lives in college and then continues swooping at various times, are almost different versions of the fairy tale told and retold.
We start by learning about the aftermath of the Robber Bride’s, Zenia, death. Then we start working back to this point by learning about each of the women’s stories leading here, with a long section each about their interactions with Zenia. Tony is a war historian who cleans up one of Zenia’s messes in college, Roz is make-up designer with a philandering husband who of course runs into Zenia in this capacity, and Charis, who’s past traumas get preyed upon by Zenia too.
I will stop there only to mention that this is almost in the form of a popular novel. It’s long, it’s rich, it’s funny and weird, but it’s not a challenging story. It’s a good story and a fun novel, but it almost feel light in comparison to other Atwoods.
“She walks towards Karen and Karen feels a cool wind against her skin, and the grandmother holds out both of her knobby old hands, and Karen puts out her own hands and touches her, and her hands feel as if sand is falling over them. There’s a smell of milkweed flowers and garden soil. The grandmother keeps on walking; her eyes are light blue, and her cheek comes against Karen’s, cool grains of dry rice. Then she’s like the dots on the comic page, close up, and then she’s only a swirl in the air, and then she’s gone.”
“The story of Zenia ought to begin when Zenia began. It must have been someplace long ago and distant in space, thinks Tony; someplace bruised, and very tangled. A European print, hand-tinted, ochre-coloured, with dusty sunlight and a lot of bushes in it- bushes with thick leaves and ancient twisted roots, behind which, out of sight in the undergrowth and hinted at only by a boot protruding, or a slack hand, something ordinary but horrifying is taking place.”