Atwood at her finest - and in some ways, meanest (I mean that in a good way). I ended up loving it, although found it started slowly, lacking her usual sly and almost remote perspective, sharp insights, biting black humour. It was almost too sincere
and - gasp! - clichéd.
Then, by about p 100, it kicked in. Cunning use of language and symbolism (the eggs!) - and most of all, a study in a particularly disturbing kind of psychopathology to which so many of us have been prey. Slices to the bone and hits close to home, for me.
I have known too many Zenias in my life, women and men. I like to think I've learned to spot and avoid them, but this book reminds me of how they do what they do: the predatory and unscrupulous behaviour of the pathological liar.
I love that Atwood focuses her laser-beam eye here on the three 'victims'. She forces you right into their heads, you get to see each one’s inner workings at a microscopic level, the way those CSI shows take you right into the orifices and organs to show you the source of the disease up close, magnified 1,000x. You see the arterial placque of their psyches, each vein of vulnerability.
Not that the ‘victims’ here are diseased – but more like their particular psychologies, pasts, experiences have left them exposed and lacking any immunity to the disease that Zenia/the liar carries.
That core vulnerability – the commonality between Tony, Roz and Charis – is their essential ‘goodness’: their natural, untainted proclivity to trust. Even as we watch them fall repeatedly into Zenia’s clutches because of it, motivated not just by their own willingness to trust but also by the equally natural and forgivable flaws and egocentricities and points of pride or pain or shame or lack of self-awareness that Zenia exploits, we root for them and we recognize ourselves in them.
I appreciated so much that Atwood chose to strengthen, not destroy, their bonds of friendship. Too often, the opposite happens - it's the most regrettable collateral damage that the pathological liar causes. I appreciated the maturity, authenticity and well-roundedness of their perceptions and understanding of each other. This level of hyper-psycho-realism is always high in Atwood; here, she's at her peak power. And she walked a bit of a tightrope, too: Zenia, in another author's hands, could have been seen as a particularly mean-spirited sexist attack; Tony, Roz and Charis as caricatures of specific types of feminity. Atwood deliberately manipulates these nuances and layers of meaning, and our interpretation of them, as part of the story. Zenia-like, really; story-tellers are weaving lies, too, right? Reading a story is sometimes like looking in a mirror - we see ourselves reflected there; another deliberate choice of symbolism that Atwood uses.
A lot of novels make me cry. Some make me clench my teeth in anger. Still fewer leave me on the edge of my seat as I wonder how the plot will resolve. Almost none make me feel all of this, and so profoundly as this one does.