Friday, 22 November 2019

Book review: The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood (1993)

I wonder if this novel could be written nowadays. It’s a very good novel, although it flags a bit at the end of the fifth chapter, the one whose title is the same as the title of the book. At that point in the proceedings, the premise of the book, something which is not negotiable – the personality of the character of Zenia, who lies at the core of the book although she mostly appears within the recollections of the three main characters (Tony, Roz and Charis) – seems to overburden the machinery that serves to carry it.

On the other hand, the self-referential elements of the book are competently handled. This kind of thing is typical for the time the book was first published in. There are also a number of dreams that are recounted as part of the narrative: another trope typical of the era.

Beyond these there is the motif of war which appears from time to time throughout the book – Tony’s specialty at the university where she works is the history of war – and Atwood tries to use war as a metaphor for the relations between people. Between men and women and, also, between women and other women. I’m not entirely convinced that this strategy works and while the metatextual elements of the novel worked – Zenia gets what she wants merely by telling stories, after all – in my mind the most striking parts of the book were the individual stories, especially those parts that dealt with the childhoods of each of the three main characters.

Overall, I was pretty impressed by this novel of manners. It provides a detailed view of life in Canada in the period after WWII – all of the main characters are Boomers, born in the 1940s – and the issues it deals with were current not only in the period the novel opens in (the 1990s) but also during the war. The counterculture of the 60s features strongly and Atwood suggests that some of the main innovations of that decade – which carried through into the 70s, particularly in the form of feminism – stemmed from the global conflict that had just ended.

Structurally, the book is symmetrical (see table of contents in the photo above). Each of the women Zenia gets to know as a result of their attending the same tertiary education institution – Tony, Roz, Charis – has her own history and those histories contain compelling stories of abuse (in the cases of Tony and Charis). Roz’s background has its own drama. Zenia’s history is more mysterious. In fact she embodies the idea of mystery. She is also manipulative (objectively speaking) and malicious (so her friends believe).

If you were to try to select one dominant subject this book retails in you’d probably go with feminism or, alternatively, with the other side of the coin: what is sometimes referred to as “the patriarchy”. In this sense this book is a creature of its times but, as we know, Atwood’s reputation in recent years has grown precisely because her work anticipates the invigoration of such ideas in the public sphere. By a generation, as this book proves.

A note to editors in case anyone’s planning to bring out a new printing: the 1994 Virago edition in my collection was printed in 2003 and is full of errors that could have been avoided with better proofing. Some are confusing, such as missing quotation marks, others are less serious. 

I picked the book off the shelf at random earlier this month after having tidied up the room in my apartment where most of my bookshelves stand. Boxes from my move to Sydney from Queensland in 2015 had occupied almost all of the space in this room for the best part of five years until spring and, along with it, the end of the decade influenced me. A period of relative calm and confidence following treatment on account of two health issues probably also influenced me, as might have the problem of going out; if I was going to stay indoors all the time, my place had best be tidy. 

Atwood’s effort is one I’ve had in my collection for many years but had never read. It was bought at the Co-op Bookstore on one of my city’s university campuses, I don’t recall now which one but it was probably their shop in the swimming centre at Sydney University. A decade ago I worked just down the street from this building.