Monday, July 31, 2017

11th Canadian Challenge - 2nd review - The Tattooed Woman

This collection of short stories was the last work that Marian Engel completed.  She was deeply involved in the selection of the stories, though she passed away before its publication. (Timothy Findley describes her working on The Tattooed Woman from her hospital bed.)  For those that track last works (and in particular unfinished last works), that honor goes to Engel’s Elizabeth and the Golden City, a fragment of a novel she was working on that was finally published in 2010 in Marian and the Major, edited by Christl Verduyn.  I have to be honest, Elizabeth and the Golden City appears to be so embryonic that it is more of a curiosity than something one would truly read for pleasure.  Thus, I can safely recommend The Tattooed Woman as the last thing Engel sent out into the world.  (I have to admit that I really have not delved deeply into Engel's work much beyond Bear.  Reading these short stories was a start, and I will try to get to The Honeyman Festival and Lunatic Villas in 2018 or so.)

The Tattooed Woman contains Engel's selection of her stories published between 1975 and 1985.  A few of them were actually written for radio (the CBC program called Anthology).  This is actually Engel's second short story collection.  Inside the Easter Egg came out in 1975 and collected her first stories.

Many of the stories on the same wavelength as Atwood's The Edible Woman, i.e. giving voice to women's interests and inner thoughts, even if those woman were "troublesome" or slightly off-kilter.  And Engel doesn't completely romanticize women's interactions with each other.  Mothers and daughters still have fraught relationships, and she also paints a picture of a dreary, selfish "friend" in "Share and Share Alike." What's interesting to me is that roughly the first half of the stories are slightly eerie (perhaps even channeling a bit of Angela Carter), but the second half tended to be more on the realist side.  Occasionally, there seem to be echoes of Carol Shields, though it is more likely that Engel served as an inspiration to Shields.  I don't think I am imaging the strong connection between Engel's "Could I Have Found a Better Love Than You?" and The Stone Diaries, for instance.  There were a few interesting stories in the first half, but on the whole, I preferred the second half of the collection.

I won't be able to go into all the stories at a great level of detail, but I'll highlight a few I found particularly worthy.  There may be minor SPOILERS hereafter.

"The Tattooed Woman" is a fairly sad tale, about a woman who starts cutting herself as a coping mechanism when her husband takes up with a young employee.  She does seem to making steps towards recovery by the end.  While I may never actually finish my novel, it has a character who scars herself as a sort of notching of the bedpost but on her own body (I suppose to try to cope with the whole madonna/whore thing that plays out in Western culture).  It's not the same motivation at all, but anyway, I just want to note that I had thought up this character well over a decade before I read this short story.

"Madame Hortensia, Equilibriste" is sort of creepy, precisely because Engel is so vague about the narrator's disability.  From the context, it seems as if she had no legs and eventually became a circus freak, then got married a few times (to admirers who fetishized her) and had a brood of children.  It's more of a character study than a full-fledged story.

"The Life of Bernard Orge" was fairly amusing.  It's about a woman who creates an entire alter ego after donning a pair of novelty glasses.  And indeed her life is mundane and unfulfilling, so almost any change is good.  Perhaps there are slight hints of Gogol (in reverse) in this story.

Interestingly, there are a few stories about middle-aged love (and second-chances) actually working out, such as "Feet," "The Confession Tree," "Could I Have Found a Better Love Than You?" and "Share and Share Alike," though it should be noted this isn't the main thrust of the last three stories, as there are other things going on.  There is a certain generosity of spirit in these stories, though it should be said that the only time couples seem happy is when men and women of approximately the same age pair up.  The man going through a middle-aged crisis and shacking up with a younger woman doesn't end up all that happy in Engel's world.

One of the last stories -- "Two Rosemary Road, Toronto" -- is an interesting and somewhat sad piece.  The story is structured as a letter that a widower is writing to someone he knew from his early adulthood.  She had apparently written a letter of condolences that mingled in some statements that he felt were unfair, and he is taking the chance to set the record straight about his wife's death from cancer.  He explicitly writes that if she is angling to catch him as her second husband, she should think again.  However, he doesn't send the letter, and tears it apart in the morning, apparently changing his mind and thinking that maybe life goes on after all, and it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to be the pursued one for once.  (Perhaps some slight echo of Benedick here: "The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married." Though of course the letter writer already was married and it is highly unlikely that this second union, if it even comes about, would lead to children.)  Still, it's a bit of a downer to imagine being in Engel's shoes, writing about the necessity for the world to go on, even when she was aware that cancer was catching up to her.

On the whole I enjoyed this collection.  It will satisfy readers who are admirers of Atwood's early novels as well as Carol Shields' devotees.  There was variety in the stories (even a ghost story) and even a few happy endings sprinkled here and there and only one or two duds.

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