“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anyone else’s window.”
Margaret Atwood is to my mind one of the greatest living writers in the English language, her prose is beautifully crafted. These short stories form a semi-autobiographical sketch about a woman, Nell, from childhood through into early old age, the stories are not in chronological order but like a sequence of vignettes randomly plucked from the heroine’s life. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, where at the end you get to see the bigger picture. The book is really a story told in stories, where conventional plot is sacrificed to a more intriguing puzzle driven by characters, pace and theme to unify the parts.
“The Headless Horseman” is a good evocation of childhood, as well moving masterfully between past and present. It also shows the awkward relationship between two sisters; one a teen and the other an infant.
As an English teacher, I particularly liked “The Last Duchess”, where Nell tries to explain Browning’s poem to her rationalist boyfriend, who can’t fathom the literary allusions in the poem.
Some stories are related in the first person, some in the third, we might assume the “I” is Nell but in the last two stories it is not obvious, Margaret Atwood can toy with her readers at times.