Atwood takes trio on journey into self

November 14, 1993|By Diane Scharper

Title: "The Robber Bride"

Author: Margaret Atwood

Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Length, price: 466 pages, $23.50 "When you begin writing," according to Margaret Atwood, "you're in love with the language, with the act of creation, with yourself partly; but as you go on, the writing -- if you follow it -- will take you places you never intended to go and show you things you would have never have seen."

"The Robber Bride," Ms. Atwood's eighth novel, suggests several such places and things. This story, which is about women's relationships, is set in modern-day Canada. Part of it, though, happens inside someone's brain.

In addition, Zenia, the character about whom the action revolves, constantly invents places and things that no one has ever seen. That she does this is one of several problems bedeviling Tony, Charis and Roz, the other characters in the story.

After having published more than 20 books -- in addition to novels, she writes short stories, literary criticism and poetry -- Ms. Atwood has become one of the most acclaimed contemporary writers. Her 1986 novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," was a futuristic story that was made into a movie. Her seventh novel, "Cat's Eye," moved away from political concerns back to what's called vintage Margaret Atwood -- women's ways of knowing themselves and each other.

"The Robber Bride" is also vintage Atwood. Tony, Charis and Roz go on a journey into the self. Zenia, in a sense, forces them to do this. They look at death and rebirth, nature and society, past and present, through the lens of mythology, fairy tales, symbolism and Jungian archetypes.

Ms. Atwood has been called a feminist writer, although, in a way, the term seems to unfairly limit this author's scope. Her fiction centers on women's lives, yet the emphasis is on the archetypal significance of those lives.

Reading this novel is less like reading about women and more like being inside a shark tank. The story brims with the civilized/savage subtleties of women's conversation; those subtleties are made more powerful because of the poetic language in which they are written. Some of the paragraphs are actually prose poems.

In another way, though, the book is feminist in a negative sense, with Ms. Atwood limiting her own scope. Her women have a kind of witchlike sixth sense. The men haven't a clue. At first, this picture of the male character as helpless victim seems mildly humorous. Later, it becomes annoying and detracts from the author's credibility.

Otherwise, "The Robber Bride" is a flawless story in which Tony, Charis and Roz come to terms with themselves, all the while thinking they're coming to terms with their college friend, Zenia. Zenia, like the wicked queen in "Sleeping Beauty," changes herself: She's a journalist, a public relations writer, a spy, a drug dealer and a ghost.

Zenia tells Tony, Charis and Roz different stories. Her mother was a Gypsy, or a Russian, or a Jew. Zenia didn't seem to have had a father. Yet she may have had many fathers.

According to one story, her father was a retired general in the Russian army. Another story has it that Zenia's mother was a prostitute, who later forced Zenia herself into prostitution.

According to still another story, Zenia was orphaned during World War II. Her last memory of her mother is a pair of shoes, standing in the charred rubble of her house.

Whoever she is, Zenia is a beautiful, charming, seductive and manipulative woman who never seems to age. She's your best friend until she has worked her way into your affection and into your lover's affection. Then she's a murderer like the murderer in the Grimms' fairy tale, "The Robber Bridegroom."

The point of the novel is that nobody knows the truth about Zenia. What people know is the effect she has on their lives. That effect changes just as twisting the lens changes the view in a kaleidoscope.

The novel begins on Oct. 23, 1990, in what the narrator calls a definitive moment: The three main characters see Zenia, whom they believe to be dead. Although the actual time of the story is only one year, the action flashes back to the childhood, youth and adulthood of three women. The story is told in three interconnected narratives and three points of view, each woman telling the story of her life.

Each woman was hurt primarily by her mother. She heals herself and assumes an adult identity until Zenia enters. Zenia dismantles that identity, opens childhood wounds, almost becomes the embodiment of those wounds.

There's also an ambiguity about Zenia that involves her very existence. How could Zenia exist after she has supposedly died? Is she the child that these women were? Is she their opposite? Their shadow self? Their double?

These questions are at the heart of the novel. The answer to them determines how the story is read and even whether you will like this book. The answer also gives the book its psychological depth.

Charis was Karen before she was sexually molested by her uncle. Tony dealt with a hurtful mother by seeing words -- her name becomes "Ynot" -- backward. Roz was formerly Rosalind but changed her name as she turned from her Catholic mother to her Jewish father.

But what, Tony wonders, can be made of Zenia? If Zenia's story is insubstantial, as Tony suggests, at the novel's conclusion, it's insubstantial the way life is insubstantial. If, as she says, it's a rumor drifting from mouth to mouth, it's a powerful rumor, able to evoke pity and fear in those who hear it.

If her story changes as it goes, it also changes those to whom it goes. The extent of that change has to do with the creative act that Ms. Atwood has so aptly described.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

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