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First published in 1993, The Robber Bride was the eighth novel by Margaret Atwood, distinguished Canadian novelist, poet and short-story writer. Born in Ottawa in 1939, Atwood is Canadas most eminent writer, the author of such acclaimed novels as Alias Grace, The Handmaids Tale and Cats Eye. The Robber Bride is, in my view, one of her finest achievements.
The Robber Bride takes as its inspiration the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the Robber Bridegroom, in which an evil groom lures three maidens into his lair in order to devour them. Atwoods version turns this on its head in creating the character of Zenia, a jaw-droppingly malevolent individual who worms her way into the lives of three women Tony, Charis and Roz purely, it seems, in order to destroy them.
But Zenia, thank goodness, is dead, blown up by a terrorist bomb in Lebanon, an innocent bystander if the word innocent can ever be applied to such a person. Tony, Roz and Charis went to her funeral just to make sure; noting the tree which is planted over Zenias ashes, Roz comments that she is tempted to acquire some dogs just so they can be trained to pee on it. Needless to say, few tears are being shed over Zenias demise.
Like survivors of some atrocity, the three women now in their forties - despite their apparent differences, share a common bond and continue to keep in contact, meeting for regular lunches. But now, it seems, five years after her funeral, their nemesis is back from the dead, walking into the restaurant as large as life and just as evil...
The characters of the three women are brilliantly rendered. Tony is little and thin she comments self-deprecatingly that she has the sex appeal of a fire hydrant, and dresses in floral prints from the childrens section. This image however belies her profession as a military historian, a subject for which she has a lifelong passion, re-enacting historic battles using cloves and peppercorns to represent armies. For Tony, Zenia is a lurking enemy commando, a major threat to the peace and security of Tonys settled life with her husband West.
Charis (pronounced with a hard c as in Karen, which was Chariss name before, for reasons which become apparent, she changed it) is a hippy-dippy new age-y type with an especially painful personal history, which has left her with deep psychological scars. Her daughter Augusta, by contrast, has developed into a brisk young woman who lacks patience with her mothers eccentricities. For Charis, soulless Zenia is a threat on a profoundly spiritual level.
Wealthy businesswoman Roz, successful in public if scatterbrained in private, lives with her three children self-contained Larry, and the ebullient teenage twins, Erin and Paula. Warm and dynamic, if sensitive about her weight, Roz too has had her life turned upside down by Zenia, and the re-emergence of the loathed one not only stirs up painful memories but also poses an unanticipated threat.
As the three women reappraise their lives in the light of this reappearance, the reader gradually learns the full extent of what has happened in the past.
A master of psychological manipulation, Zenia has always known just how to inveigle her way into the lives and hearts of others purely, it seems, so she can have the pleasure of turning on them. Men are easy enough prey for the femme fatale, who has no trouble in using her sexuality to seduce and destroy, but her skills are also deployed on the women whose friendship she apparently seeks: for Tony, she is a friend, confidante and intellectual equal; for Charis, a vulnerable, damaged soul in need of care and nurturing; for Roz, an independent, interesting woman in possession of some irresistible knowledge about Rozs own family history. As Tony says, people like Zenia don't get into your life unless you invite them in; but Zenia has her own, hard-to-resist techniques of winning people over.
The course of the novel actually spans less than a week though incorporates flashbacks of each of the three womens earlier lives. Discovering that Zenia is not, after all, reassuringly dead, we see each of them respond to the new threats she poses, a different but equally alarming one for each of them. Through the eyes of Tony, Charis and Roz, Zenia seems a kind of unstoppable natural disaster, whose re-emergence can mean nothing but impending disaster.
As we might expect from Atwood, The Robber Bride is very, very cleverly written. The man-eating Zenia is such a monster, so fantastically bad, that we continue reading in sheer disbelief as to what she could possibly do to top her past exploits and she doesnt disappoint. The novel is cunningly structured, delving into the past lives of the three main characters and allowing each in turn to take centre-stage, in the process drawing a full and rounded picture of each individual. Zenia, by contrast, is a cartoon villain. Despite the importance she has assumed, she is never at centre stage we see her only via the perceptions of others.
This book is ultimately, I think, about love, and the damage that can be caused by a person who lacks basic humanity. Zenia is a sociopath who skilfully exploits the vulnerabilities of others, for no apparent reason other than sheer badness. She loves no one. Her motivations, for whatever reason, are purely to damage and destroy, in alarmingly sadistic ways. She creates nothing; there is nothing about her to admire. As Roz points out, even her breasts are fake.
The Robber Bride is, of course, beautifully written with many quotable moments. It sounds dark, and it is at times, but there is a lot of humour in there also. The characterisation of the three protagonists is superb. It has been suggested that the character of Tony has some autobiographical elements I have no idea how true this is, but its an intriguing idea. Anyway, Atwoods depiction of the three women is merciless, exposing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities but at the same time conveying the uniqueness and value of their lives and what, ironically, they have ultimately learned and gained from Zenia.
Available in Virago paperback for £7.99, or from Amazon, as ever, for less.
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, 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 60`s during their student years but their unlikely friendship (well established at the time when the main events are taking place which is early 90`s) 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?
The whole novel is narrated in the free indirect style and 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.
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 is the same: she befriends each of them women and then uses her: for food, for shelter, for cheques: she uses and abuses their trust, presses the sensitive buttons that make them abandon reason and, eventually, leaves with their money and/or their men.
The different strands are woven together beautifully, the story is never short of gripping despite the fact that most of it concerns emotional lifes 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 believable and true to life AND representative of certain almost-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 friends 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 (a son and a pair of terrible and wonderful female twins), 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 permamnently spaced out, turned inwards, vaguely hippie, into yoga and proper nutrition, perhaps more scarred by her past then the other two, ethereal and vaguely out-of-this world with her precognitions, belief in meaningful coincidence, herbal baths and seeing of 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, especially childhood experiences, 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 there.
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 as well - 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 (after all, 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.
Here is a link to a trial read:
The book is 576 pages in Virago paperback (the hardback version I read was issued by Bloomsbury and had less pages) and is available on www.amazon.co.uk for £6.39, or from 0.20 from the marketplace. Any decent library should also have it.
Zenia is beautiful, smart and greedy, by turns manipulative and vulnerable, needy and ruthless; a man's dream and a woman''s nightmare. She is also dead. Just to make sure Tony, Roz andd Charis are there for the funeral. But five years on, as the three women share an indulgent, sisterly lunch, the unthinkable happens; 'with waves of ill will flowing out of her like cosmic radiation', Zenia is back...