It is not easy to sum up the particular quality of Margaret Atwood’s short stories, because they do everything. They have irresistible ‘read-on’ opening lines: ‘Julie broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp…’; ‘When she was nearly five, Susanna did a tap dance on a cheese box…’ They develop with the most satisfying ingenuity; each piece slots into place like marquetry, until you have the whole picture. They end in flourished climaxes that make you gasp that it all comes together, like a magician’s finale. And they are full of smart metaphor and memorisable aperçus and funny descriptions.
‘Hair ball’, for instance, is the story of an outrageous young Canadian designer, Kat, whose fashion layouts specialise in shock. She carries out her most extreme creative gesture as revenge against her married lover, who has disappointed her. In the build-up to this, Atwood’s comic talent comes into sure-footed play.