You will want to ration out the stories from Margaret Atwood's latest short fiction collection, Stone Mattress. You will tell yourself that you'll read "just one more", but then you will find yourself racing through the collection, hungry for more of Atwood's wit.
Atwood's characteristic dark humour permeates each story. Each tale is related in the third person; the lack of self-awareness of some characters being a source of amusement.
Many of the stories feature elderly protagonists. The ageist in me would think this has the potential to be quite boring, but as it turns out, Atwood has crafted fascinating, detailed characters that have led colourful lives. Death is a recurring theme among the stories, but never of the natural causes one would expect in a book with an elderly population.
One of the most exciting aspects of Atwood's work is the recurring characters. Not all of the stories in the collection are connected in this way, but some bring to life names that only existed in the memories of earlier characters. The man-stealing scarlet woman of one story is revealed to be the socially clumsy old lady of another.
While I could never pick a favourite story from the nine in the gripping collection, 'The Freeze-Dried Groom' stood out. Protagonist Sam is running a dodgy business operation in which he purchases the contents abandoned self storage units. Opening up the unit he won at auction, he encounters all the necessary supplies for a wedding, all while contemplating his own unfurling divorce. He slowly realised that everything one should need for a wedding is contained in the storage unit:
"Behind the cardboard boxes there's some luggage - brand-new luggage, a matched set, cherry red in colour.
And behind that, in the farthest, darkest corner, is the groom.
'Crap,' says Sam out loud."
The title of the story gave away the twist, of course, and yet it was still a most unexpected development.
Stone Mattress is the sort of collection that can and will be revisited by readers. The first reading takes you on an adventure of unexpected turns. Picking up some favourite tales for the second time, you devour details with a new understanding.