Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 576 pages; 2009.
Margaret Atwood is one of those authors I know I should read more of but never do. I read Alias Grace more than four years ago, so thought it was about time I try something else by her. I opted for The Robber Bride on the sole basis that it was chunky enough to keep me entertained on a seven-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to London Heathrow.
The story, first published in 1993, is a decidedly weird one and features one of the kookiest characters I’ve ever come across in modern fiction. Zenia (pronounced with a long e, as in seen) is a ruthless, manipulative woman, who befriends three other women — academic Tony, business woman Roz, and free-spirit Charis — living in Toronto and turns their lives upside down in more ways than one. Zenia, you see, likes attached men, but the only way she can get close to them is by sidling up to their partners and ingratiating herself.
But Zenia has done her dash with Tony, Roz and Charis, and when she is blown up “during some terrorist rampage or other in Lebanon” they heave a collective sigh of relief. But while Zenia dead is no longer a threat, she has left an indelible mark on all of them. When she is spotted, five years later, alive and well at their favourite lunch-time restaurant, they don’t know quite what to do. Should they confront her? Pretend they haven’t noticed? Hope she goes away of her own accord?
The story is divided into hefty chunks in which each character, bar Zenia, gets to tell her tale, specifically how she met Zenia, what Zenia did to her and how they react to her return from the dead.
Zenia’s presence looms large right at the beginning of the novel, but it’s never quite clear what she’s supposed to have done, or even what she looks like. There are plenty of hints suggesting she’s a trouble-maker and someone not to be trusted, but I couldn’t help wondering if she might, in fact, be a vampire, as this paragraph suggests:
Tony was the first 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. There has to be a recognition, an offer of hospitality, a word of greeting.
And later, towards end of novel, Roz bemoans the fact that the back-from-the-dead Zenia is looking younger than ever:
Doesn’t she ever age? thinks Roz bitterly. What kind of blood does she drink?
And while Zenia may or may not be human, there’s no doubt that she is a parasite. She looks for willing victims and sucks them dry. She befriends people and uses them for her own ends.
She’s also a compulsive liar. Among other things, she tells Tony that she is a White Russian and was a child prostitute in Paris. She tells Charis that her mother was a gypsy who was stoned to death by Romanian peasants, and later, when trying to worm her way back into Charis’s affections, she tells her that she has cancer. These are just small examples of her conniving, dishonest ways.
The story is very readable — although it’s incredibly long and could easily have lost 200 pages without sacrificing the plot. Its strength lies in characterisation. While Zenia is the stand-out, all three women are strongly drawn and believable. The depiction of their friendship, despite their very different personalities, is authentic.
But I couldn’t ignore the feminist agenda which plagues this book. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the men in this story are weak-willed or unfaithful, and that Zenia, the man-eater, is cut from the same cloth. Indeed, upon hearing about Zenia’s behaviour, Roz’s colleague Boyce tells her to check that she’s really a woman. “It could be a man in a dress,” he suggests.
At times the story reminded me very much of Muriel Spark’s wonderful novels. I think it was largely the darkness of the lead character, her wicked ways and the strong streak of humour which runs throughout the narrative.
And while Atwood does not allow Zenia to tell her own story, thereby depriving us of discovering her real motivations, it allows us, the reader, to determine her agenda for ourselves: was she a mean-spirited tart intent on stealing husbands, or an angel in disguise rescuing her female friends from the men that would destroy them? Only you can decide.