Nine tales from one of the greatest living writers around; it sells itself regardless of reviews really. Margaret Atwood’s new short story collection opens with a recently widowed author of a popular schlocky fantasy series being guided by her dead husband’s voice in her head in a wintry storm. This establishing story immediately demonstrates Atwood’s typically remarkable prose, brimming with intelligence, unique language and strength in her characters. The group of stories examine writers, growing old and the relationships that can suffer from the past sins and sufferings of the characters. A fantastic murder story from a woman taking revenge on a high school boy who abused her is an example of Atwood’s chilling and dark sense of humour, in some ways echoing Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’. Yet it is perhaps the concluding story that is the most chilling, interesting and demonstrable of Atwood’s power of speculative prose. The brilliantly named ‘Torching the Dusties’ paints the frustrating and sympathetic life of a sufferer of Charles Bonnet’s syndrome, residing in a retirement home the story slowly builds to a fantastically menacing, and incredibly dark place. A group of extravagantly clad younger people begin to camp and protest outside the narrator’s facility, cherubic baby masks covering their faces, “It’s our turn, time to go” they declare in a mantra. In a neighbouring old people’s home burns to the ground, the residents dying in the blaze, and the group claims responsibility. It’s a unique and fascinating look at the ‘problem’ with aging and our cultures relationship with the increasing lengths of lives we are capable of now. It reminded me of a BBC piece on Japanese culture being ‘absent of the sin of suicide’ with supposedly many elderly individuals taking it upon themselves to rid their relatives from taking care of their needs, feeling it is their ‘duty’ to not be a burden. From this you can follow the path to the passionately debated topic of Assisted Suicide, campaigned for by sufferers of diseases such as the great and dearly departed Terry Pratchett as well as Tony Nicklinson and many others arguing for a cultural compassion.
While reading the concluding tale I wondered if this could have been a fascinating introduction to a much larger story, perhaps even a novel by Atwood. The themes are certainly in focus within our culture at the moment and the writing was dark and engaging; but this is part of the double edged art of the short story. We are provided with such a unique and fascinating world, framed in a small structural setting that will leave us tantalised for more, but emotionally satisfied with what we were given. Atwood proves with this collection that she is as comfortable in this form as the celebrated writers of short fiction, enjoyable and definitely worth the time.