Dancing Girls

Karen and Simon’s biannual reading clubs, each focusing on a particular year as we travel through time decade by decade, are a great way of discovering new writers, returning to old favourites, and, as in this case, dipping into the back catalogue of those authors whose work you are yet to fully explore. Dancing Girls was Margaret Atwood’s first short story collection, published after numerous collections of poetry and three novels, though almost a decade before the novel which brought her both critical acclaim and bestseller status, The Handmaid’s Tale. Most of the stories in Dancing Girls dissect relationships which fall broadly into two categories: those which have failed and those which are failing.

‘Betty’ is one of the former, told from the point of view of a seven-year-old child remembering a particular summer, much of which was spent at her neighbour’s, Fred and Betty’s:

“There was more to do at Fred and Betty’s than at our house.”

Both the narrator and her older sister, Catherine, are fascinated by Fred:

“Beyond all these attractions there was Fred. We both fell in love with Fred.”

While these are childish infatuations, Fred is generally easy to like – “there was something about Fred that attracted people” – in contrast to Betty, who is dismissed by the narrator’s father as having “no sex appeal.” Despite her crush on Fred, the narrator recognises “it was unfair that everyone was in love with Fred but no one, despite her kindness, was in love with Betty.” Naturally, Fred is unfaithful to Betty, and it is the narrator who discovers Betty shortly after she has found out:

“Her face was white and uncomprehending, as if someone had just hit her for no reason.”

Four years later, the narrators’ mother finds and befriends Betty again, but, in a scene with echoes of her discovery of Betty, the narrator returns home one day to find her mother crying: Betty has accused her of sleeping with Fred. A brain tumour, which proves terminal, is blamed for this outburst, though our child’s viewpoint (even at fifteen) makes the truth difficult to decipher. The narrator continues to be haunted by Betty:

“When I first heard about her death I felt doomed. This, then, was the punishment for being devoted and obliging, this was what happened to girls such as (I felt) myself.”

The idea of being punished for being ‘devoted and obliging’ is touched on again in ‘Under Glass’ when the narrator discovers her boyfriend has been unfaithful to her again:

“I’m not allowed to be angry. He thinks it’s unfair.”

When she tells him, “I wish I didn’t love you,” he feels forgiven:

“He kisses my fingers; he thinks we’ve all been cured. He believes in amnesia, he will never mention it again.”

In ‘Hair Jewellery’ the lover is unfaithful before he can even become the lover. The narrator must travel to New York as part of their plan to sleep together (“In those days, as you recall, it had to be discussed first…”) but her boyfriend fails to meet her. When she finally gets through to him on the phone a woman answers, “Some chick wants you.” In ‘Lives of the Poets’ it is also a phone call which suggests infidelity as Julia, who is out of town to give a poetry reading, phones her husband Bernie only for a younger woman, Marika, to answer:

“As she put down the phone she thought she heard something. A voice, a laugh?”

The men in these stories seem both more careless than callous; the women lacking in confidence rather than weak. That lack of confidence can be seen in ‘Man from Mars’ when Christine finds herself (as we would say now) stalked by a Chinese man she is momentarily kind to. When he phones and forces an invitation to her home from her mother she can’t help but feel “slightly festive”. She is aware that his unwanted attention makes her seem more attractive;

“Annoying and tedious though it was, his pursuit of her had an odd result: mysterious in itself, it rendered her equally mysterious. No one had ever found Christine mysterious before. To her parents she was a beefy heavyweight, a plodder, lacking in flair, ordinary as bread.”

This is not true of all the stories; in both ‘When It Happens’ and ‘A Travel Piece’, the resourcefulness of the female characters is one of the key points. In the former, Mrs Burridge imagines surviving a nuclear war, an early piece of science fiction disguised as social realism. In the latter, Anette, a travel writer, finds herself surviving in lifeboat after her airplane is forced to land on water; it is she who has the foresight to take some food from the plan as she leaves, though events are also an ironic response to her earlier complaint, “Sometimes I feel I’m not alive.”

Two of the stories also have sympathetic male viewpoints. In ‘Polarities’ Morrison must cope with his colleague, Louise’s, growing madness; in ‘Training’, one of the rawest tales, Rob, volunteering at a camp for those with disabilities, struggles to retain his goodness.

Dancing Girls demonstrates Atwood’s nuanced understanding of character more than her craft. Both ‘Dancing Girls and ‘The Sin Eater’, for example, over-reach themselves in their conclusions, but Atwood’s characters always feel true. She is particularly good on both the spoken and unspoken relationships between lovers and those in love, but, even when her characters are alone, you leave their stories feeling as if you have met someone you are unlikely to soon forget.

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6 Responses to “Dancing Girls”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’m embarking on this one soon with high hopes… 🙂

  2. Simon T Says:

    Interesting! I’ve not been a huge fan of her novels, but for some reason I feel like I might enjoy the short stories more. Thanks for adding it to the club!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s interesting what you say about her skill with characterisation as that chimes with my (albeit very limited) experience of her work. Even though I wasn’t mad about Alias Grace (historical fiction is generally not my thing), I thought the characterisation was very compelling.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think that’s true of all her work – it stands out both in her historical fiction and science fiction, as well as in those novels set in the present.

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