Having hungrily devoured several of Margaret Atwood's novels, from 'The Handmaid's Tale' through 'Surfacing' to 'Alias Grace', I was intrigued to see 'Murder in the Dark' described as a collection of 'short fictions and prose poems'. I make several long bus journeys a week, and if you're sandwiched between giggling schoolgirls and someone booming down their mobile phone while the guy at the back is singing along to Alice Cooper on his ipod, it's not an atmosphere conducive to getting absorbed in a five-hundred page novel. But these little gems take just a couple of minutes each to read and each demands to be savoured before you go on to the next one.
'Autobiography' is a description of a landscape that starts with a blue line and goes on to scan a lake, a white cliff and a forest. The piece ends with the idea that the landscape ceased to be a landscape not because of a visual feature but because of a smell the smell of a half-eaten carcass of a deer.
Each piece of prose in the first section develops the autobiographical theme. 'Making Poison' is seen as being as much fun as making a cake: a children's concoction of toadstools, dead mice, mountain ash berries and piss. What happened to it seems to be a long-forgotten mystery, but throwing it at an adult would have been out of the question.
'The Boys' Own Annual' was discovered in grandfather's attic, where smells of dried rot and smoked eels are recalled as well as the 'buttery sunlight' streaming through the window. Smells feature again in the vague memories of 'Boyfriends', smells perhaps of leather, banana skins or 'the vestibules of old movie houses'. It is the dresses that form the vivid memories rather than the boys: pink or red hand-made dresses with flared skirts.
Section II contains just one piece entitled 'Raw materials' which actually focuses on travelling. A persistant beggar encountered in a foreign land is so unnerving that he produces the reaction 'we've always gone for the real experience, but there's something to be said for package tours.'
In Section III, 'Simmering' is a witty piece focusing on the culinary traditions of a fictional society, where men gradually take control of kitchens, eventually resigning from their jobs to devote more time to cooking. 'The wives were all driven off to work, whether they wanted to or not.' A man's status came to be determined by the length of his carving knives, the number he had, their sharpness and their decorativeness. It was said that if God had intended women to cook, he 'would have made carving knives round and with holes in them.'
In 'Women's Novels', Atwood takes the phrase 'She had the startled eyes of a wild bird' and states 'This is the kind of sentence I go mad for.' But she goes on to ask: which bird? A screech owl or a cuckoo? And then again, 'She had a feral gaze like that of an untamed animal'; 'porcupines, weasels, warthogs and skunks' fill the imagination with gazes that could be malicious, bland or sly. All this at the moment when the hero and heroine were about to kiss passionately.
'Happy Endings' categorises women's novels into various stock formulae: successful marriages, 'stimulating and challenging' jobs, sex lives, and hobbies; a happy couple who miraculously escape a tidal wave that kills thousands; same couple, but he has a bad heart, dies, and she immerses herself in charity work. The only alternative is for him to be a revolutionary and her a counterespionage agent, but it will still lead to the inevitable 'Eventually they die. This is the end of the story.'
'Bread' confronts us with unsettling ideas. At first, bread is presented as pleasurable food, spread with butter, peanut butter and dripping honey; bread-making is considered a relaxing thing to do. Turn the page, and you are in a stifling room with walls made of earth; your younger sister lies starving; there is one piece of bread that you've been saving: who should have it? You are reluctant to go out looking for more because of scavengers and corpses.
'The Page' will fascinate writers; a white page is seen as having no dimensions and no directions, and is therefore something you could get lost in. You're advised on entering the page to take a knife and some matches, something that will float and something to hold onto to help you get back. 'Beneath' the page' is not to be confused with 'on the back': 'on the back' there is nothing, but 'beneath' there is everything that has ever happened.
Section IV includes one or two pieces that look at men from a woman's perspective. 'Iconography' describes a man who gains power by having a woman 'in a position she didn't like', then greater power by forcing her to do something she didn't like it and then convincing her she liked it. 'Liking Men' begins in a comical way with appreciation for the nape of the neck or the navel, and then the feet, as long as they have had 'a good scrubbing'. But it develops into a brutal rape scenario where a woman struggles to retain the image of the man she loves.
There are altogether twenty-seven short stories and prose poems in this collection, and to detail each one of them here would make too long a review. I was drawn by the concept of 'shoppers for words' in 'Mute', where words are picked over like apples, and you can begin to detect a bad smell, presumably from overuse. There are wonderfully imaginative descriptions, in 'Strawberries', for example, of a 'conical fine-haired dark red multi-seeded dwarf berry rendering itself in dry flat two dimensional detail like background foliage by one of the crazier Victorian painters' all this for a tiny red berry. The final piece entitled 'The Third Eye' explores the difference between 'vision' and 'a vision'; at first you have to close your other two eyes in order to use the third eye, but after practice you will find that 'what you see depends partly on what you want to look at and partly on how.' I love the idea that if you don't resist the third eye, one day you will see everything glowing from inside and 'you will touch the light itself.'
I feel that is difficult to do justice to a book such as this which is like a microcosm of Atwood's work. There is so much here: one piece will make you laugh, another might remind you of your own childhood, a third could make you feel uncomfortable or set you thinking about things in a new light. There is so much that is unexpected, a sure sign of a wonderfully creative mind. It is like an anthology that you can keep going back and dipping into, as I'm sure I will. If you haven't read Atwood before, this would be a good taster, and if you have enjoyed any of her full-length novels, you will be bound to appreciate something in this collection of brilliance.
110 pages, published by Virago Press 1994
Price £7.99 (lower prices on Amazon Marketplace)
A leathery bog-man transforms an old love affair; a sweet, gruesome gift is sent by the wife of an ex-lover; landscape paintings are haunted by the ghost of a young girl. This dazzling collection of 10 short stories takes us into familiar Atwood territory to reveal the logic of irrational behaviour and the many textures lying beneath ordinary life.