Margaret Atwood demonstrates her many talents in The Robber Bride [London: Virago, 1994] which follows the fortunes of three friends, completely different characters yet who have one thing in common, a mutual friend who has betrayed them all and then, conveniently, got herself blown up and killed in the Lebanon. They attend the funeral ceremony when a small metal canister is buried beneath a graveyard tree. But later, when the three of them meet for one of their occasional lunches at a Toronto restaurant called the ‘Toxique’; ‘Zenia returns from the dead’.
The Robber Bride can be explored and enjoyed on several levels. It is the story of three temperamentally different women and how, given their back stories, they cope, or fail to cope with the intrusion of a greedy, selfish, amoral, compulsive liar who, face to face, can be so overwhelmingly convincing and arouse such feelings of compassion and pity that ordinary considerations are swept aside, including healthy scepticism. Each loses their partner to Zenia; who takes what she wants without so much as a ‘by your leave’. They feel, however, by the time they meet for that fateful lunch, that Zenia is finally laid to rest as a threat as well as a person, although each is still haunted by her ghost.
It is a showcase of Atwood’s literary talents and gift for language. All three main characters are explored from within with great empathy. Provincial but gentle Canada of the second half of the 20th century, by contrast with its noisy southern neighbour, is described in clear detail.
Attwood loves to subvert the reader’s expectations by bending or twisting a phrase so that it still reminds one of the original but strikes a new note. She tells a good joke: this is one of the rare books where I burst out laughing several times. One of the later secondary characters has a literary bent but often gets his quotations wrong, deliberately or otherwise: ‘Genius is an infinite capacity for causing pain’; ‘She walks in beauty, like the blight’; ‘Obsession is the better part of valour’.
Zenia, the robber bride, is drawn to perfection. She is an unforgettable ogress. You will enjoy this! — or I’ll send Zenia round!