The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

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The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Wonderfully written story of three female friends all profoundly affected by a relationship with the psychopathic Robber Bride of the title. Highly recommended for characters, depth and quality of writing; Robber Bride speaks with several voices. If you give it a go, it might speak with one you recognise.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: October 1994
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 1853817228

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Margaret Atwood is an astonishingly good writer. She excels in intricate construction and hers is a clear, seemingly effortless transparency of the language: like if it wasn't there, like if nothing mediated between the reader and the tale.

She is so good that despite the fact that she mostly writes about women, from a female perspective and with a noticeable feminist slant, her writing transcends the boundaries of what is often described as 'female fiction'. In Polish we have no expression for 'chick-lit', there is, however, one of 'menstrual literature' which applies to more serious examples of prose written for and by women.

On the surface, The Robber Bride definitely looks like an example of 'menstrual literature': it has four female protagonists and it is mainly - at least on the surface - concerned with male-female relationships. It has family dynamics, it has troubled childhoods, it has a food problem, it has childhood sexual abuse, Multiple Personality Disorder, sexual guilt and flowery mysticism, childbearing and toilet-cleaning. Just about the only thing missing from the usual catalogue of typical woes is post-natal depression. In an word, it is a book I should hate.

But somehow, mysteriously, probably through sheer quality of Atwood's writing, The Robber Bride got hold of me: I found it a compelling, enjoyable and insightful read. How was it achieved? I suspect that many aspects of the work contributed, but the way the novel is constructed and the characters are the most important.

But let us start at the beginning: the story is told from a perspective of three women: Tony, Roz and Charis. The all met in the '60s during their student years but their unlikely friendship (well established at the time when the main events are taking place which is early '90s) is a result of all of them encountering the fourth woman, the Robber Bride of the title: Zenia. Zenia the liar, the cheat and the thief, the blackmailer and the man eater, Zenia the psychopath (though this word is not mentioned even once in the novel), Zenia the manipulator extraordinaire, Zenia who in the war of the sexes supports one side only: Zenia's.

Each of the women is in some ways damaged by Zenia. After Zenia's death and funeral Tony, Roz and Charis can breath more freely and her sudden reappearance during a sisterly restaurant lunch five years later brings back unwelcome memories and the fear: what does she want now? And how can they stop Zenia from working her dark magic again, from wrecking another life, from stealing and tearing apart another soul?

Zenia's reappearance brings back memories for all of the women: we go back with them to their first encounter with Zenia and then even further back, to the childhood and teenage years of each of the characters. After all, somebody like Zenia cannot enter your life unless you open the door - and it's the particular vulnerabilities and scars that all three women carry that Zenia uses to break inside. The pattern was the same: she befriended each of the women and then used her: for food, for shelter, for cheques; she pressed buttons that made them abandon reason and, eventually, left with their money and/or their men.

The whole novel alternates the point of view of each of the women. Some events get told by all three voices, and it's striking how the description changes with the perspective: the same hotel lobby is seen in totally different way depending on who is looking.

The different strands are woven together beautifully, the story is never short of gripping despite the fact that most of it concerns emotional lives of the characters. The final resolution is very satisfying and the book, although the plot synopsis makes it sound a bit like a soap-opera script, is actually never sentimental and rarely simplistic.

The aspect in which The Robber Bride really shines is characters. Not only they are well developed, multi-dimensional and human, but also seem at the same time true to life AND representative of certain archetypes. And each of them is given her own, different voice, her own way of seeing the world, herself and the other people. And of course her own relationship with Zenia. Zenia is not just another character, Zenia is also a mirror, is the dark, the forbidden subconscious or perhaps the alter-ego, the person that Roz, Tony and Charis have not been either because they couldn't or because they chose not to.

Tony is brainy, introverted, fighting for her own place in the male world of the military historians. She is also small (thin and short), lacking in obvious sex appeal and not very good at all the womanly things, though she is the only one of the three who actually lives with a partner. To Tony, Zenia is red hot sex and black, glittery glamour.

Roz is clever, sociable, garrulous and maternal. She is large and has a bit of an eating problem, she also has children, lots of money and a flourishing business. To Roz, Zenia is thin and dangerous, gin at midnight as opposed to her own chicken soup, black silk to Roz's raspberry satin.

Charis is permanently spaced out, turned inwards, into yoga and proper nutrition, more scarred by her past than the other two, ethereal and out-of-this world with her precognitions, meaningful coincidences, herbal baths and auras. To her, Zenia is artifice and power, the ability to experience sex as fun and the ability to be angry; black lightning to Charis's pearly white glow.

What I found very believable and interesting was how the three women, though undoubtedly shaped by their past, are also 'of themselves'. In some ways, they were born the way they are and everything that happened later, ever the most traumatic events, was just a moulding of material already present.

I was left thinking for quite a long while after finishing the book. I thought, as I often do 'what is it about?'. Apart from being a character study of 3 (or 4?) women, it's also a look at how our lives are shaped by mixture of genetics and experience. The books touches on the problems of responsibility, blame and causation: after all, is it really possible to steal a man? Is it possible to steal somebody's soul? Laying blame at the feet of an archetypal femme fatale is a very woman-ish thing to do, and was even more common in the past (the characters in the novel were all born in the 40's ), where the 'third woman' was more often blamed for the man's betrayal than the man himself. After all three women were somehow still of the past, students in the 60's and still at least partially burdened with the fairly traditional ideas of female roles and sexual guilt.

The mystery of Zenia is never revealed. We don't learn the 'truth' about her - and perhaps this is one of the main messages of the novel: there is no truth, really. We cannot learn the truth about Another, there is only what they tell us and what we see, and this is invariably coloured by our own peculiarities. After all, maybe Zenia does not exist at all - maybe she is just a personification of the shadow - whatever the particular shadow might be - for each of the three characters?

I have to say that my favourite character in the novel is Tony - I could certainly identify a bit with Roz - through her business acumen, through her disturbed eating, through her love and pride in her children. But at the end of the day, it's the childless, organised, slight of body, cerebral Tony that holds the story together and - through her profession - provides the deepest reflection on its meaning. Or maybe it was just for me? Maybe for somebody else the new-ageish 'survivor' sensibilities of Charis would be more relevant?

'The Robber Bride' speaks with several voices. If you give it a go, it might speak with one you recognise.

If you've enjoyed this book you might like to read Alias Grace, also by Margaret Atwood or Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum, although The Robber Bride is by far the best.

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Buy The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood at Amazon.com.

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