‘Alphinland’ is the first of nine short stories in Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress (2014) and the fictional fantasy world created by its protagonist, Constance. There are incantations, dragons, goddesses and even a special box for a certain poet ex-boyfriend of hers – not that she’s bitter. Alphinland is where Constance, an endearing elderly widow, goes to escape, but there is just one rule – it is off limits to her late husband, Ewan.
During a cold and bitter ice storm, Constance is guided by the voice of Ewan when preparing for the ensuing weather problems. But as the narrative unravels it becomes apparent that there are many unanswered questions between the two – “did you have an affair?”, “pull yourself together”
Despite tension in the air, Constance relies on and trusts Ewan’s judgement and owes a lot of her practical choices and decisions to him. She’s dependent on someone who is no longer in the world with her. This is the one thing in the book I felt quite frustrated over – obviously. Refer to this review for a ‘girl power’ outburst and then you’ll understand my thoughts. I just can’t help myself.
Constance is really quite likeable, she doesn’t trust other people’s intentions when offering her help – “she doesn’t watch the television news for nothing”, you know – and in a fallen tree induced power cut she assembles herself a duvet fort in front of the fire so she makes it through the night without freezing. Imagine a little old lady wrapped up like a burrito – adorable, is it not? However, she relies on her late husband’s interjections to get her successfully through the day and I want her to give herself more credit. Even in Constance’s own mind, her solutions to problems come to her through the voice of Ewan and therefore, not even her own practically belongs to herself. She believes he’s the forward thinking one but, after years of marriage, perhaps she picked up a few tricks.
The short story comes to a dramatic close when Ewan’s presence disappears. Constance finally acknowledges out loud Ewan’s death, telling him so, in a fit of rage when he confronts her about a man – her ex-boyfriend locked away in Alphinland? But, he’s forbidden to going there? And so, she goes looking for him. This, for me, is the moment where Constance is faced with truly being alone or holding on to what once was, despite its cracks.
The end of the short story, for me, was a little confusing. Atwood delves in and out of fantasy quite rapidly and, in all honesty, I really didn’t know what was going on for a little while. That’s probably why I did give this short story a lower rating and it hurts me to do so because I am a fan of Atwood.
Admittedly, my experience with short stories is very limited and as a fan of Atwood, I commend her ability to create an experience without making it feel rushed or totally overwhelming to read. A lovely bed-time story that delves in and out of the past, present and fantasy.