A widow navigates the sidewalk in a snowstorm, lugs a bag of kitty litter for her doorstep and argues with her husband about his indiscretions. An ailing author feels duped when interviewed for a piece about his former lover’s writing. Funerals are about burying more than the dead, and old frenemies are sometimes reincarnated as dogs. Youth, and the magnetism of youth, transform into what we hope is wisdom, but is often fear. Atwood calls this collection of nine stories “tales,” evoking ancient tale-tellers and elevating the short piece of fiction “from the realm of mundane work and days.” Atwood’s published stories are never mundane, and this collection is bizarre, provocative and double-edged.
Three of these tales connect intricately: They stand alone yet are stronger, resonate longer, when read together. Atwood revisits old friends from a previous novel (no spoiler here) in a way that feels both whimsical and probing. She examines our fear of aging, the ways we stave off wrinkles and bulges with clever lighting and dressing tips (sometimes with murder). She faces the great age gap: how a fear of death and age prevents the young and old from communicating and supporting one another.
The unknown sandwiches human life. Where do our souls come from, where do our souls go when we die? Fear causes a rejection of aging, and the elderly. We love our aging grandparents, but we tell ourselves they get better care in homes, and as a bonus we are not faced with their frail bodies, their wasted physical frames that represent the part of life we most wish to stave off—the end. Atwood tells a suspenseful, engaging story that doesn’t point fingers or cause guilt, but does make us think about the way the young and old interact and the psychology—the heart—behind those actions.
Atwood’s characters are not aging gracefully: they struggle against the passing of time, the loss of youth and mobility and certain attractive suppleness. They are real: They are not from the pages of a magazine, from a sitcom, a carefully orchestrated profile page, or cleverly photographed advertising campaign. They are people whose greatness is not the level their young selves dreamed of, who still carry wounds from childhood, who seem destined to repeat their mistakes. They are beautiful in their flaws.
I am young, still young enough to feel a little hubris over death. I understand the science behind aging (at least the basic principles) and the inevitability of leaving this earth. I feel removed from that inevitability though: even when I try to face the idea off death, everything becomes slippery and drops away. Atwood’s writing doesn’t face death exactly, but sneaks up behind—before the creature slips away—and reveals the terrible beauty in the unknown.