Hair Jewellery by Margaret Atwood, 1977
The magic trick:
Opening and closing with broader, more relatable recollections; surrounding a very specific plot
This story is phenomenal. Phenomenal.
And I almost didn’t finish it. I was so bored – probably more to do with my own mood at the time – by the first page that I just about bagged it.
I’m so glad I didn’t.
Ironically, as I review the text, it’s that first page or so that I think works really well as an invitation in. The story is very specific. It very much belongs to the narrator. That can be intimidating for a reader hoping to find a story that acts more as a mirror. So we have this opening, in which the narrator sets the story’s stage. She talks about what kind of person she was at this particular time in her life. Yes, it’s about her – not us. But it’s relatable. It’s open. It’s self-effacing. It welcomes the reader in.
So now you’re hooked. You like this narrator. You feel like you’ve been there. Maybe not exactly there, but some kind of there. So when she starts talking about the plot details that are very specific to her and her only, it’s okay. You’re already on board.
The story comes up for air at the end and does something similar. The narrator, with some years’ distance, assesses what the story has meant to her life. Again, we can relate. Maybe not to her exact story, but we can understand the lessons learned. It’s a very smart way of personalizing the story for everyone.
And that’s quite a trick on Atwood’s part.
I bought these clothes, when I bought clothes at all – for you must remember that, like you, I was poor, which accounts for at least some of our desperation – in Filene’s Basement, where good quality clothes that failed to sell at the more genteel levels were disposed of at slashed prices. You often had to try them on in the aisles, as there were few dressing rooms, and the cellar, for it was a cellar, low-ceilinged, dimly lit, dank with the smell of anxious armpits and harassed feet, was filled on bargain days with struggling women in slips and bras, stuffing themselves into torn and soiled designer originals to the sound of heavy breathing and a hundred sticking zippers. It is customary to laugh at bargain-hunting women, at their voraciousness, their hysteria, but Filene’s Basement was, in its own way, tragic. No one went there who did not aspire to a shape-change, a transformation, a new life, but the things never did quite fit.
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