When I was about thirteen I read a book by Margaret Atwood – the first of her books that I read – and it was called The Robber Bride. The cover alone was enough to entice me: a two-layered affair, black-on-black, a smoky eye-mask revealing smoky eyes on the front; this could be peeled upwards to reveal, in turn, a woman’s face. The face was pouty, film-noirish, mysterious. It was the face of Zenia, and Zenia was the Robber Bride.
Although The Robber Bride is the tale of what Zenia does (and she is very good at what she does, as another character points out), the story is not narrated by Zenia. Instead the story of Zenia and what she does is focalised through three women: Tony, Roz and Charis. These women have little in common, although they all went to the same university: Tony is a dry academic, walled up in a Victorian turretted house where she analyses war; Roz is a businesswoman, who shops with verve under the directive of an often-misleading inner voice; Charis is a island-dwelling hippie with a penchant for crystals and strained cabbages. Each woman has an uneasy relationship with her own name. Tony, who is ambidextrous and likes to reverse words, is secretly Tnomerf Ynot, her backward and more warlike persona. Roz’s name has been through many iterations during her search for an identity that doesn’t make her feel guilty. And Charis was once Karen, but changed it in an act of empowerment following a difficult childhood.
Tony, Roz and Charis share something else. What they share is Zenia. Into each of their lives, at different times, Zenia has appeared – suddenly, tantalisingly – offering what each of them most needs at that moment. To awkward Tony, adrift at university, Zenia offers guidance; she is a mentor and initiator. She takes Tony shopping; she shares recipes and stories. She is Tony’s only friend. But then one night she leaves, taking Tony’s money, and also, in a deft act of blackmail, what Tony holds most dear – the security of her academic future. There is also the matter of the man Tony loves, West; while Tony may have inherited him, there’s a sense that he’ll always be Zenia’s. Because Zenia is the Robber Bride, after all.
Years later, Roz and Zenia meet in a restaurant. Although Roz knows Tony’s story and is wary at first, she’s quickly drawn in by Zenia’s version of events, and by her charm. Again, Zenia has something to offer Roz, something unrefusable – help for her ailing magazine, where Zenia has experience, and – better yet – a tale of being saved during the war by Roz’s unreliable father. It’s a compelling combination. Pretty soon Zenia is on the board of directors. Roz is content: business is good, and her usually-roving husband Mitch is displaying none of the usual signs of infidelity. But one day Zenia is gone, and with her the company’s entire allowable overdraft – via a series of subtly forged cheques, and Mitch is gone, too, to live with Zenia. Unlike West, Mitch does not return.
Charis lives a life of great simplicity. Out on the island she feels a safe distance away from Toronto, taking the ferry into the city to teach yoga. She harbours a dissenter called Billy with whom she’s fallen in love. One day Zenia shows up at Charis’ yoga class with a black eye; Charis takes her in, because Charis is a nurturing soul whose greatest gift and greatest weakness is her desire to help other people. From Charis, Zenia takes Billy – of course, and what else could we expect? One of the most affecting scenes in the book is Charis, very pregnant, running with difficulty towards the harbour in time to see the shapes of Zenia and Billy on the deck of the ferry, departing.
We know very little about Zenia. We know what stories she tells, and that they are most probably lies; certainly they don’t add up. We don’t even know her surname, or where her first name comes from; Tony has looked into it. We don’t know what Zenia wants; is it the act of stealing that appeals most, or the things – money, men, status – that she steals? What’s so compelling is that, along with Tony and Roz and Charis, we believe her, even though we know she’s lying. We are powerless to prevent her.
The one thing that is definitely known about Zenia, at the start of the book, is that she’s dead. Like survivors of an incomprehensible and random tragedy, Tony, Roz and Charis meet once a month for lunch, almost to reassure themselves that this is so. And then, reflected in a smoked mirror (because smoke and mirrors is what Zenia does best), Zenia appears. Zenia is not dead. And Tony, Roz and Charis, shaken to their brittle cores, are forced to confront Zenia once more, and in doing so to confront their own deep-concealed weaknesses, secrets and regrets.
I probably read The Robber Bride once a year or so, which would mean that I’ve read it nearly twenty times. My copy has fallen apart; as I write this, all I was able to find was the back cover, long-divorced from the rest of the book. When, in the process of writing the songs on the album, I was searching for the stories that I have loved, or been most moved by, I had no choice but to include The Robber Bride.
At first, I thought I would choose one of the women to voice the song. But that didn’t feel right. Instead, I used the voice of Zenia. So she sings a verse to each of them, first Charis, then Roz, then Tony. I wanted quite a bit of repetition in the lyrics, because of the patterns in Zenia’s tradecraft. I wanted, too, to capture her ruthlessness, her lack of sentiment that borders on smugness.
One of the great pleasures of mediating a narrative that is not yours from experience is that there’s a wider range of stories to tell: as I often say when performing this song, I have no wish to be like Zenia. (I wouldn’t be very good at it, either). But to become Zenia for four and a half minutes is an interesting diversion.