Friday, 11 May 2012

Book Review: "I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth", by Margaret Atwood

"I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" has Margaret Atwood reacquainting herself with the characters depicted in her 1993 novel The Robber Bride. Atwood was inspired to write "I Dream of Zenia" after Canadian literary magazine The Walrus asked her a few months ago to revisit the characters of The Robber Bride in a short story.

While asking for a continuation of a novel published in 1993 may seem odd, given that Atwood has written five or six novels since, it actually makes perfect sense. The Robber Bride is the sleeper hit of Atwood's novels - it doesn't have the genre-bending sensibilities of The Handmaid's Tale or the widespread critical acclaim of Cat's Eye and Alias Grace, and yet it's accumulated a sizable following over the years.

Unlike many of her novels, which are relatively self-contained works, the ending of The Robber Bride kind of drifts away from the reader like ashes over Lake Ontario, with no clear answer as to where it'll wash up. The open-ended nature of The Robber Bride was one of the many things that hooked me when I first read the novel, so when I first heard that Atwood had written "I Dream of Zenia", I was worried it would give The Robber Bride some sort of genuine conclusion. But when I found out that it had a limited print run of 2,000 copies, and that the first hundred copies would be signed by Atwood herself (one of which I was lucky enough to receive), how could I resist?

Because some of the purchased copies may not have arrived yet, I'm not going to reveal any major spoilers, sticking only to those details already available on The Walrus' website. Knowing the nature of the web, though, a detailed plot summary is sure to surface in the next few weeks, but I still don't want to ruin it for anyone. (Yes, I'm frustratingly old-fashioned like that.)

Head on below the fold for my review.

The short story - at 32 pages, it's more of a novella, really - focuses on willowy Charis and whip-smart businesswoman Roz: a sensible choice on Atwood's part, given that The Robber Bride was bookended by historian Tony's reflections on "the days of Zenia". It 's actually quite fitting that "I Dream of Zenia" belongs to Roz and Charis - Roz's sense of humour is to die for, and Charis is the only one whose relationship with Zenia is never quite resolved.

"I Dream of Zenia" really is a delight to read, largely because Atwood has done such a great job moving these three characters into the twenty-first century. Charis has moved off the Island into a duplex, and Tony and Roz gather at her house to watch vampire movies and eat popcorn, a clever mirroring of how they used to meet at the Toxique. I do wish Atwood had delved more into Roz's storyline - we get barely any mention of her kids, especially Larry, who I wanted to catch up with - although the fact that Charis has welcomed a new member into her family, a member who provides one of the most hilarious but wince-inducing moments of the novella  (particularly if you're a guy), makes up for it.

While "I Dream of Zenia" is a triumph on a comedic level, it also contains a startling insight into Zenia's actions that gives the reader a new perspective on her nature. It reminded me of a key line from Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest in which Algernon says, very simply, "The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live— so Bunbury died." Tony's suggestion in the The Robber Bride that Zenia's name originated from a similar-sounding Greek word gains newfound importance here, as does her declaration that Zenia is history, a statement with myriad meanings. It's a stroke of genius on Atwood's part in that it adds to Zenia's character without resolving The Robber Bride's gorgeously ambiguous ending.

"I Dream of Zenia" ends on a perfect, warm and full-bodied note. It feels like both a closing of a chapter in the ongoing story of Zenia and the beginning of something new for these characters. It's all I expected and much, much more. It's why I love Margaret Atwood's writing, and yet another confirmation of her extraordinary skill as an author.

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