In the end, we choose our point, arbitrarily: “A period, a dot of punctuation, a point of stasis.” Atwood reminds us that the story could easily end elsewhere, that endings are random, and that, for her protagonists (but not for Zenia), life moves forward and love, whether for a husband or for children, remains.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Robber Bride
by Margaret Atwood
Time Warner Books
April 2003 (Originally published Jan 1996)
RRP: A$23.00, 480 pages, pb
In the opening to The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood sets up the slightly ironic self-referential tone of the novel. Antonia Fremont – “Tony” – is exploring where the “story of Zenia” ought to begin…”someplace bruised, and very tangled. A European print, hand-tinted, ochre-coloured, with dusty sunlight and a lot of brushes in it – brushes with thick leaves and ancient twisted roots, behind which, out of sight in the undergrowth and hinted at by only a boot protruding, or a slack hand, something ordinary but horrifying is taking place.” Zenia is a cartoon character, impossibly beautiful: “like a photo, a high-fashion photo done with hot light so that all freckles and wrinkles are bleached out and only the basic features remain: in her case, the full red-purple mouth, disdainful and sad; the huge deep eyes, the finely arched eyebrows, the high cheekbones tinged with terracotta.” Zenia appears almost magically in the lives of three women, Tony, Roz, and Charis, and using some nasty confidence tricks, manages to infiltrate their lives, ruin their happiness, destroy their illusions, steal or extort money from them, and wreck their fragile homes.
So who is Zenia, and what happens in this extraordinary novel? The basic story is a simple one, where a beautiful women brings together three much plainer ones, and mirrors the Grimm’s fairy tale that the title alludes to. Zenia ties the three protagonists together through their mutual hatred and the desire for revenge she inspires in them. In the “present” which is as illusive in this, as in many other of Atwood’s novels, Tony, Roz, and Charis are meeting in the “Toxique” restaurant for lunch, a regular celebratory meal they have had since the Zenia’s death, 5 years earlier. All of them were invited to, and stood together rejoicing at Zenia’s funeral. At this particular lunch, Zenia, beautiful as ever, and clearly alive, walks in. Although they pretend not to see her, and she pretends not to see them, they are all aware of one another. From Tony, Roz and Charis’ initial airy kisses, they become allies in pain, hugging, shivering, questioning their world and wondering what kind of mission for destruction Zenia can be on. Internally, they all vow revenge, self-protection: “Zenia, you’re dead meat. You’re history.”
The obvious plot is about how these women work through their anger towards Zenia and what ‘happens’ to her, but this novel is really not about Zenia at all. She is a catalyst, and hardly real, with silicone breasts, a tiny Betty Boop styled waist, a nose job, and clouds of nondescript hair. She is a dream, a succubus. The real story is about Tony, Roz and Charis. The story begins and ends with Tony, and her attempts to reconstruct Zenia, which immediately sets the reader at a distance from Zenia. She is ‘out of the frame.’ It also creates another present tense – one which is further removed from the ‘now’ of the Toxique chapters. Each of the protagonists have their own chapters, and their own tragic backstories. In a combination of flashbacks which are so subtly handled that they are also placed in the present tense, and varying points of view, we begin to learn about these, empathising deeply with the tiny and lonely young Tony with her missing mother, the physically and then sexually abused Karen/Charis, or the overweight, overworked Roz. The tragedy for these women is not Zenia. All of them have serious vulnerabilities, split personalities of a sort, and have incurred psychic baggage well before meeting the men that Zenia takes from each of them. Zenia’s betrayal, however nasty, is small potatoes next to what they’ve already undergone. It is, in fact, almost too convenient that each of them encounters Zenia – that she seeks them out, and that they have already made a connection with one another prior to Zenia’s arrival. Zenia’s ‘real’ back story remains hidden. We only have her many ‘fabrications,’ delivered through each of the protagonists. She remains, as Tony clearly points out, invited in. The ugly sister – the shadow side, a summonsed harpy.
Atwood is a master of the narrative voice, and she handles the different points of view perfectly. Tony’s narrative is crisp, funny and rich, riddled with her gift of being able to convert words into their backwards images. Tony’s dyslexic capability renders the most mundane words, like “bridge club” into their mirror image, great warriors, secret codes. She’s strong, tough, able to look nasty battles, knife welding students, and death in the eye. Charis’ narrative is suitably airy. Full of auras, vitamins, roughage and karma. Roz’s is witty, strong, and loud. Their personalities come through clearly, and even their children (especially Roz’s larger than life twins) are more real than Zenia. The backstories give the novel breadth, expanding the setting from the ‘present tense’ of 1990-91 downtown Toronto, with the Gulf War, the increasing crime, the real estate developments, recession, famine in Africa, through the personal development of these women in their entire 40-50 year span. The writing is always tight, well paced, and often beautiful, taking us deep into the minds of the three protagonists.
There are a few minor things which don’t work so well. Zenia’s involvement in the war is a little suspect, as is her death, and the revelation about Larry, Roz’s son, seems forced. The writing itself is so stunning though, and Atwood’s development of the intricate strands of the story coupled with the deep psychic exploration of the protagonists works so well that it hardly matters. Atwood has complete control over the balance between perfect realism and the slight edge of mysticism that her work is known for.
Zenia may well have given each of these heroines a gift, dark and painful but also enabling. They become, through her, united, not only with one another, but with themselves. What does Zenia really take from these women? The men she uses turn out to be as false as her own history. As Tony tells us in a slightly different context, “all Zenia can get out of her is a handful of shards”:
Who was the enemy? What past wrong was she seeking to avenge? Where was her battlefield? Not in any one place. It was in the air all around, it was in the texture of the world itself; or it was nowhere visible, it was in among the neurons, the tiny incandescent fires of the brain that flash up and burn out. (563)
In the end, we choose our point, arbitrarily: “A period, a dot of punctuation, a point of stasis.” Atwood reminds us that the story could easily end elsewhere, that endings are random, and that, for her protagonists (but not for Zenia), life moves forward and love, whether for a husband or for children, remains. “Time is not solid, like wood, but fluid like water or the wind. It doesn’t come neatly cut into even sized lengths, into decades and centuries. Nevertheless, for our purposes we have to pretend that it does. The end of any history is a lie in which we all agree to conspire.” (558)
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The Robber Bride