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The Robber Bride

by Margaret Atwood

'An arbitrary choice then, a definitive moment: October 23, 1990. 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.'

The Robber Bride is often discussed as modern fairy tale with historical precedent, as Atwood has used recognisable elements from the Grimm Brothers story, The Robber Bridegroom. But I doubt that any fairy tale has told a story as menacing or affecting as this one.

This is the story of three Toronto women, with clearly defined voices and individual narratives but all are linked by a common past in the form of their friendship with Zenia. The story begins five years after Zenia's funeral and astonishingly, like a beast who refuses to die, she appears to have risen from the dead. Over three decades, they have all been appallingly treated by Zenia, who has systematically befriended and betrayed each of them. All of the women are changed and traumatised by her power, so sightings of her alive now serve only to torment and unsettle. The many wounds she has inflicted upon them are hard to heal as each of them has made heavy emotional investments in this 'friend'. It emerges that Zenia operates in a calculating and predatory manner, luring her prey into a friendship, then demolishing it, with varying degrees of success. The character of Zenia emerges through the chaos she has created and it is not until we meet her that we can form our own opinions of this apparent monster. Zenia's borderline personality, her cleverness and inexhaustible appetite for destruction, are utterly fascinating. Atwood reveals a very bewitching, magnetic personality and one wonders where her own sympathies lie. This monstrous woman is a powerful exploration of female power, as is Atwood's discussion of the nature of the women's friendships. It is certainly a provocative and powerful choice for any book group to take on, and one which I guarantee will provoke a five star discussion!

Read our interview with Margaret Atwood.

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