The Tent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

The Tent

by Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury, $206

People who play the piano know the importance of practice and people who live next door to pianos know to expect scales and exercises, but the payoff is sometimes short pieces that can be sublime. The Tent is a collection of such works by Margaret Atwood, most of which are no more than two pages, or about 300 words, long.

Gathered together is previously published fiction written for a variety of magazines and causes - the response, perhaps, to ever-so-polite requests to 'write us a little something'.

The impression is of the 67-year-old Atwood shaking her curls and gazing for a moment out the window of her Toronto home at the snow or the trees, then, having glimpsed an idea, effortlessly writing a page or two, just so.

'You go down into the dark with Margaret Atwood and she's a phenomenal entertainer,' says Scottish writer Ali Smith, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

'It's a kind of entertainment like Angela Carter's, a magical entertainment, and you are held, while you are in the dark, in some kind of light space. And she will say to you, look there's the dark, what are you going to do about it? I will reveal it to you, I will show it to you, and you can decide what to do. There is always the 'ever hope' of the entertainer, the real entertainer, the magician-entertainer, that she reveals things so you can understand them.'

Pieces here are from Harper's Magazine, Brick, The Walrus, Daedalus and Short Story. Others were originally for limited-edition booklets in aid of this or that - the Harbourfront Reading Series, the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales. Something Has Happened and But It Could Still appeared in an anthology to support charities doing relief work after the Indian Ocean tsunami. One piece, Chicken Little Goes Too Far, was for a holograph auctioned in aid of the World Wildlife Fund. The technology would have appealed to her futuristic tendencies.

Particularly good are Warlords, about warriors who have tasted battle and 'can never be anything else'; Plots for Exotics, which is to do with the untapped resource of optimism; Winter's Tales, about how old the young have become; and the truly clever Chicken Little Goes Too Far, in which news that the sky may, or may not, be falling is variously received - with indifference, acceptance of a perverse nature, or as the responsibility of someone else.

Atwood is one of the great contemporary writers in English, and prolific, too. At last count, her body of work is 17 books of fiction (including 11 novels), five non-fiction books, six books for children, and 13 books of poetry - all up, 41 titles since her first poetry was published in 1961.

Attwood was given the Order of Canada in 1973, upgraded to Companion a decade later. The Blind Assassin won the 2000 Booker Prize, and The Handmaid's Tale was made into a movie and an opera.

Those who have read Atwood's previous fiction collections - Good Bones and Murder in the Dark - will know what to expect from The Tent: imaginative and wide-ranging little fictions that can be read in minutes but linger for hours.