It’s not often that a book review of any kind threatens to be longer than the original work. Any review of Margaret Atwood’s Good Bones, however, risks such ignominy. Good Bones, which might also have been successfully entitled Bare Bones, is not just succinct: it is short. Ostensibly, it’s a collection of short stories, but cover to cover there is only enough material to keep a determined reader happy for an hour or so, if the object is merely to cover the ground. If the object is to savour the material and follow its concentrated lead, then there might even be a lifetime of involvement within these few pages.
The tales feature characters from fiction, from Classical myth, from folk tales and fairy stories, as well as other, more disparate sources. Margaret Atwood herself seems to figure here and there as well. In every case, we see something familiar from an unusual perspective, points of view that in every case take the reader by surprise.
But there is something much more arresting and surprising than the subject matter, and that is the various forms in which these pieces are presented. They are all different, but none addresses its subject matter via mere prose. And strangely, these are not poems either. They are poetic, and they feel like they ought to be prose. They are like sketches or verbal doodles and, as such, regularly flit from one unexpected turn to another, equally unpredicted.
If these short pieces were pictures, they would remind us of smaller canvases by Paul Klee, with their schematised line drawings, cartoon witticisms and the occasional joke tinged with nightmare. Throughout they would speak of big ideas that seem to underpin the content, and this is communicated in concentrated form, despite their small scale, emerging via suggestion. And it is surely their biting irony that simultaneously arrests and entertains.
In some ways, these short stories by Margaret Atwood, these prose poems-cum-doodles almost constitute a new literary form, perhaps doing for prose what haikus do for poetry. Each one could have become a novel, if Margaret Atwood had been lucky enough to have had the luxury of multiple lives to afford the time to construct them. Read them quickly and the revisit them individually with more time to spare. Their stature is small, but their rewards are great.