Trevor's Reviews > The Robber Bride

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
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's review
Jun 12, 08

really liked it
bookshelves: literature

Everybody in this novel has a motive for killing Zenia – and that is the point, or at least, one of the points. Zenia is a dark, malevolent force – one of those people we desire in the dark, middle of the forest nightmare spaces in the black pits of our souls. She is the one who knows our secret desires and who uses them against us to bring about our own undoing. At least, we would like to believe it is our undoing she seeks and that she is the agent that brings it about. But that is the thing about malevolent forces – they are agents of change, and sometimes what seem like evil changes bring about good outcomes.

I don’t want to ruin this book for you if you are thinking of reading it. But I think I can get away with saying Zenia works her magic by being a mirror – Atwood even says this at some point towards the end, but I was thinking it most of the way through the book. And mirrors are interesting things, troubling things, dangerous things.

There are a number of themes that struck me during this book which I’m going to think about more now with you. Atwood has always been interesting to me, ever since I read The Blind Assassin, although, I liked this one better than that book. I think mainly because I worked out far too early in that one ‘the secret’ and that spoilt it for me. Much like Psycho was ruined for me by my working out the problem with the mother well before the end.

One of the things I really liked about this book was Atwood’s way of casually mentioning, before launching off on a story, something key that happens at the end of the tale – I felt like I was doing one of those mazes in a kids’ colouring book – I know where to start and where I’ll end, but how will we get from one to the other? The other thing about knowing the end of a story before the details are filled in – the main point of it, I think – is that we get lashings of dramatic irony. If you know before the story starts that this character’s husband is going to run off with Zenia, well, when she is saying to them both, “No, you two stay here and enjoy yourselves while I go off and bury my head in the sand” you know what a fool she is being taken for. Irony gets piled on irony. This is an interesting pleasure. There was a time when all stories that were told (Macbeth, Oedipus, Lear) were already known by the audience before the play began. This meant that the author could play with dramatic irony – with the audience being brought under the wing of the author as a co-conspirator. And Atwood does exactly this with her readers in this book – and it is a fascinating device.

I really like stories that are based on fairytales – though, with smart writers I sometimes struggle with the allusion back to the tale itself, which I assume must be there. The Grimm fairytale that is implied in the title of this one comes in two versions. The first thing we notice is that the sex has been changed. The Robber Bridegroom is someone the bride has been promised to who lives in the middle of the dark woods. He asks his bride-to-be to come to him at his house, but she resists and is terrified of him. He leaves a trail for her to find his house, either in ashes or ribbons. When she does go to him his house is empty except for an old woman who hides and protects the bride. Soon she learns that her husband-to-be is part of a group of thieves who are rather fond of eating women – in the first version of the story a beautiful young woman is devoured, in the other version the princess’s own grandmother. In both versions of the story the bride is hidden behind a barrel when the dead woman who is being prepared to be boiled and eaten has a finger cut off with an axe so that the robbers can steal a ring that is stuck tight on her finger. This finger flies across the room and lands in the lap of the bride behind the barrel. Luckily the robbers give up looking for the finger/ring before they discover the young woman. After their cannibal feast they sleep the sleep of the innocent, so deeply asleep that the young woman can make her escape. In both versions of the story the bridegroom finally comes to marry his bride, but before the service the bride tells him about her ‘dream’. This dream is the story of her visit to his house in the middle of the dark woods and as she tellsthis story he becomes increasingly pale. Once the story is finished he tries to escape, but is soon captured, as are the rest of his troupe of villains, and they are all killed by the appropriate authorities for their wicked deeds.

Now, part of me would have thought that telling you that story would in some way ruin – at least in part – the story of The Robber Bride. What surprises me is that there seems to be so few parallels between the fairytale and the tale Atwood composes here.

I also wondered what would have happened, how would I have responded to this story, if it had been written by a man? It would have been quite a different story, I think, if Mark Atwood had written it rather than his ‘sister’ Margaret. I would have taken the male writer to have been a sexist old fart. The main proof of this sexism would have been the three main women characters and the ultimate ‘femme fatale’ in Zenia. The three women at the heart of this story are each instances of what it is to be a woman in the 1980s. One is a bit of a tom boy – interested in wars and recreating battles, she also (like Zenia) eats men, if only representations of men as dried beans and such from her mock battle fields. She is logical and analytical – she even has a man’s name, Tony. Then there is the dippy one – the one who sees auras and I sure today would drink wheat grass. The third is the feminist business woman - although this reads like the final twist of the knife (and I think it is very interesting that Zenia attacks both this one’s failing marriage and her failing feminist magazine at much the same time) also interesting is the fact that the person this one turns to when she needs to know how to sort things out is a homosexual. There are lots of interesting things going on in this book about sexuality, gender, and what it is to be a woman – well, and a man, I guess, but much less so. Some of it, as I’ve said, would have meant something quite different if it had been said by a man.

The men in this book are all pathetic. So, a fairly accurate portrayal. It is interesting, the woman all know instinctively that if Zenia turns her attention to their partners then there is no question they will be swept away by her – false tits and all. They are powerless to 'protect' their men from her powers.

I have relatives who live in Canada – it is something I’ve always known, since I was a child, but have only recently ever met any of these mythic creatures. All the same, Canada has always seemed to me to have been another possible place that my family could have ended up in, a place where another possible me may have grown up. And, let’s face it, the Irish are just perverse enough, when given a choice between sunny Australia and freezing Canada, to choose Canada. What really surprises me – given Canada is also ‘part of the Commonwealth’ is the use of American rather than British constructions. for instance, no Australian or British person would ever say, “Well, she can kiss my fanny”. That is a gesture which is much more intimate here than it is in North America – hint, right general area, but boys don’t have fannies. There are other instances of what I would take to be US English rather than British English that surprised me during this – and I just would have thought British English might have been more likely in Canada than proved to be the case.

There are awful parts of this story – bits that are horrible and painful – just as there are in all fairytales. But I liked how this one ended and was relieved, as the meaning of Zenia, even to the characters, was not allowed to remain quite as simple as seemed might be the case at early parts in the story.

Part of us longs for someone like Zenia – oh, we deny it, of course, but if there are to be dark forces in our universe, well, surely these forces would spend their time trying to work out how to make our lives a misery. We are self-centred enough to believe that is true. But what if the devil actually couldn’t care less about us? Or worse, what if the havoc the devil caused in our lives was actually for our own good – so we could learn an important lesson?

Atwood is an interesting writer, always in control – always playing, and some of her metaphors are worthy of poetry rather than prose. Zenia is a liar, but Atwood is the consummate liar here – for isn’t that what a fiction writer is? – And isn’t every work of art, every work of fiction, a testament to the power of its creator to spin her web of lies?

Disturbing, intelligent, confronting and multilayered – what more could you ask for in a novel?
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Helen (Helena/Nell) Brilliant review. One day (but not all that soon) I am going to read this book, and it will be entirely as a result of that review.

I specially liked what you said about irony. I've always been fascinated by that fact - that Shakespeare's audiences not only would already have known the story but that this would have been part of the POINT. It's one reason why I find Othello so painful. It is drip by drip torture when you know poor old Desdemona is going to have to snuff it.

But it reminds you, yet again, that in narrative it is not about what happens but about the way it is told. And if the way it is told is good enough, it can happen over and over, and actually increase in potency each time around.

I've read your review right through quite carefully but I reckon it would work again, and again, because it's so well done. I say that without one smidgeon of irony. H

message 2: by C. (new) - rated it 5 stars

C. Some great points - I especially liked what you said about dramatic irony.

Trevor And, of course, I had completely forgotten what I'd said about dramatic irony... I saw you had started this the other day, Choupette - must go see what you have to say about it.

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