When Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, no one would have guessed it marked the beginning of a flood of dystopian novels that’s still rising, with three prominent entries receiving starred reviews from Kirkus this year: Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (“Welcome and surprising proof that there’s plenty of life in end-of-the-world storytelling,” said our review), Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (a “quietly ambitious take on a post-apocalyptic world where some strive to preserve art, culture and kindness”) and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which stretches from the recent past to the near future (“If Thatcher’s 1984 is bleak, then get a load of what awaits us in 2030”).
Atwood herself, after spending most of the past decade on the post-apocalyptic trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, has turned to the more private apocalypse of old age in a new book of short stories, Stone Mattress. Despite being an Atwood fan who’s read every other novel she’s written, and despite having enjoyed this year’s crop of dystopias (and many others), I never read her trilogy and was thrilled to see that she’d returned to the present, which has been sorely in need of her sharp eye and unsparing wit.
The senior citizens in Atwood’s world may need dentures, but they’re far from toothless—in any sense of the word. Wilma, the nearly blind protagonist of “Torching the Dusties,” is grateful to the dentist who talked her into getting implants some years back, predicting she’d need something to hang a bridge on when her teeth, “being pre-fluoridation, would shortly be crumbling away like wet plaster.”
“ ‘If I live that long,’ she’d replied with a laugh. She’d still been at the age when she’d liked to make death into a conversational flippancy, thus showing what a lively, game old bird she was.”
The book is full of ancient rivalries, four-letter words, the occasional ghost, sex and murder. What fun! –L.M.
Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor at Kirkus Reviews.