It’s a bright clear day, unseasonably warm. It’s a Tuesday. The Soviet bloc is crumbling, the old maps are dissolving, the Eastern tribes are on the move again across the shifting borders. There’s trouble in the Gulf, the real estate market is crashing, and a large hole has developed in the ozone layer. The sun moves into Scorpio, Tony has lunch at the Toxique with her two friends Roz and Charis, a slight breeze blows in over Lake Ontario, and Zenia returns from the dead. -from The Robber Bride, page 4-
Margaret Atwood’s writing is at its finest in The Robber Bride – a novel about three middle-aged women friends who first meet as college students. Their friendship is strengthened through encounters with Zenia, a cunning and beautiful woman with a penchant for enchanting men and wreaking havoc on their lives and the lives of their significant others. The story opens in the Toxique (conjuring up the words toxic, intoxicating, and toxin), an unusual restaurant in Toronto where Charis, Tony, and Roz are meeting for lunch. It is many years after their college experiences and a few years past Zenia’s funeral…although Zenia is always there in spirit – in the atmosphere and their unspoken words, and lurking in their shared history. So, when the physical, living Zenia (more beautiful then ever and with enhanced breasts and skin) walks into the Toxique, no one is entirely surprised.
Atwood spins her tale from the present, back to the past, and returns to the present – revealing the rich and complex inner lives of her characters and weaving together a story about truth, lies, and the paradox of good and evil existing at the same time and within a single person. A major theme of the novel is the idea of duality. Atwood writes about Tony:
She looks like a very young old person, or a very old young person; but then, she’s looked that way ever since she was two. -from The Robber Bride, page 19-
Tony Fremont is obsessed with history – specifically with war – and views the world both forwards and backwards. Abandoned by her mother, and somewhat of a loner throughout her childhood and into her young adult years, Tony creates an alter ego: Tonmerf Ynot (her name backwards) who is powerful and courageous.
She is not just Tony Fremont, she is also Tnomerf Ynot, queen of the barbarians, and, in theory, capable of much that Tony herself is not quite up to. -From The Robber Bride, page 447-
Charis believes in spirits and possesses the gift to heal and see into the future. But as a child named Karen, Charis was filled with rage fueled by an abusive upbringing. These dual parts of her personality create conflict for Charis, but also define who she has become.
Roz, a wealthy business woman, is both Catholic and Jewish – two conflicting religions she is unable to reconcile. Her twin daughters are a physical embodiment of the duality in Roz’s life .
And finally there is Zenia – a woman whose past is elusive. She is outwardly beautiful and charming, adept at uncovering exactly what everyone needs. But what lies beneath her exterior charm is a woman of contradictions and mystery. Zenia is almost a mystical creature, one to be admired and feared.
Tony was the first one of them to befriend Zenia; or rather, Tony was the first one to let her in, because people like Zenia can never step through your doorway, can never enter and entangle themselves in your life, unless you invite them. -from The Robber Bride, page 127-
The story of Zenia is insubstantial, ownerless, a rumour only, drifting from mouth to mouth and changing as it goes. As with any magician, you saw what she wanted you to see; or else you saw what you yourself wanted to see. She did it with mirrors. The mirror was whoever was watching, but there was nothing behind the two-dimensional image but a thin layer of mercury. -from The Robber Bride, page 509-
Atwood weaves the lives of these woman together brilliantly. The concept of history is a major theme – both the history of these woman, as well as the history of the world. History is a combination of facts and interpretations; of good and evil; of truth and lies.
We can’t really run it backwards and end up at a clean start. Too many of the pieces have gone missing; also we know too much, we know the outcome. Historians are the quintessential voyeurs, noses pressed to Time’s glass window. They can never actually be there on the battlefield, they can never join in those moments of supreme exaltation, or of supreme grief either. Their re-creations are at the best just patchy waxworks. -from The Robber Bride, page 121-
Atwood’s language in this book is rich and gorgeously constructed, baring the souls of her characters while weaving a compelling mystery. Disturbing and dark at times, The Robber Bride evokes what is essentially human about all of us, including those emotions we are most likely to conceal. When Atwood shows us Zenia’s character, we cannot look away:
Zenia is full of secrets. She laughs, she throws her secrets casually this way and that, her teeth flashing white; she pulls more secrets out of her sleeves and unfurls them from behind her back, she unrolls them like bolts of rare cloth, displaying them, whirling them like gypsy scarves, flourishing them like banners, heaping them one on top of another in a glittering, prodigal tangle. -from The Robber Bride, page 179-
The Robber Bride is the 6th Atwood book I have read – and it is by far my favorite of hers to date. Readers who sink into this amazing book will not soon forget its strong female characters and dark edges.