Saturday, 26 September 2015

Review: The Robber Bride

"Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins when it begins and nothing's over when it's over, and everything needs a preface: a preface, a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events." 

Title: The Robber Bride
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year: 1992
Pages: 564

Zenia is dead. As she has caused for enough drama in their lives, Tony, Roz and Charis are relieved. But five years later she reappears. The story evolving from that is one of a dark past. Each friend explains how Zenia infiltrated and influenced their lives prior to her death. The question is whether the knowledge about Zenia’s manipulative nature prepared them enough to deal with her one more time.  

The title of the novel alludes to a Grimm’s tale, “The Robber Bridegroom”, on which the basic plot is loosely based. However, there is much more intertextuality present in the novel, and in an article in which she tries to uncover these references as well as figure out why Atwood used those particular ones, Donna Potts states that “The Robber Bride relies on intertexts that, by Atwood’s own admission, are atypical either of popular contemporary accounts of women or of Canadian Literature” (282-3). By creating the character of Zenia, Atwood feels she has brought the tabooed subject of strong supernatural women into Canadian literature. “When people in Canadian fiction die, which they do fairly often, they usually stay buried” (283), Atwood once said. Her purpose thus, with this novel, is to use non-Canadian interext in order to break Canadian conventions.

While reading the novel, what struck me was the way in which almost every name in the novel has been changed at one point. Characters such as Roz, Tony, Charis and West were first called differently, but also shops and magazines undergo a change of name. This immediately had me think of a completely different novel: Beloved by Toni Morrison. Here, former slaves made up words and names: slavery had destroyed their identity, and allowing them to rebuild part of their lives helped them establish autonomy. In The Robber Bride, the changes are not always explained, but some that are, fit into this category. Right before changing her name, Charis explains that “[a] lot of people were changing their names, then, because names were not just labels, they were also containers” (315). Changing her name would allow her to escape a horrible past. Outside that container she was a different girl. For Roz, the name change also allowed for a proper identity forming: she regained her Jewish name as soon as her parents gained enough confidence that they were safe. 

Novels written by women are often looked at through feminist eyes. This novel, though, does not allow that vision. Even though at first hand, because of Atwood’s elaborate description of the women, we assume they are strong and independent, giving it a closer look, we see this is not at all the case. They are, in fact, entirely dependent upon their men. Zenia successfully shatters the women’s lives by taking away these men, even though throughout the novel it becomes clear that they, too, are weak. The only strong, independent character in the novel is Zenia, and she manipulates everyone by pretending to be just like them: vulnerable and reliant.

[If you have not yet read the novel, I’d suggest you stopped reading here, read the novel – because it is absolutely brilliant – and read the next couple of paragraphs afterwards, because they will spoil!]

Perhaps even more disconcerting is the fact that there seems to be little change, even though many years have passed. In those years, they have confided in each other, telling the others everything Zenia is capable of. Yet, when Zenia reappears and again tries to manipulate them into believing a tragic story for why she needs their help, most of them hardly hesitate to lend a hand. This made me wonder about the character of Zenia, and throughout the novel I kept hoping for a chapter from her perspective. But there is none. While at first I was disappointed, the New York Times review left me with a satisfying answer: “perhaps Ms. Atwood intended Zenia, by the end, to be a symbol of all that is inexplicably evil: war, disease, global catastrophe. Zenia is meant to have no voice of her own: she is only a mad reworking of everyone else's” (Moore). But still, why are the other characters so incredibly weak?

I do not have an answer to that question, and I can imagine how some feminists may be annoyed with this book for this very reason. However, I still feel that The Robber Bride is a highly enjoyable novel. Not only is it mainly plot-driven, which allows the reader to fly through it, the writing is also beautiful and the characters are extremely well fleshed out.