Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The novels of Barbara Comyns continue to be a source of fascination for me, from the wonderfully matter-of-fact Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – widely considered to be a lightly fictionalised account of the author’s first marriage – to the evocative Mr Fox, a poignant tale set in the midst of WW2. My latest discovery is The Skins Chairs, first published in 1962 but sadly currently out of print. It’s vintage Comyns, shot through with a clever blend of the macabre and the mundane that characterises her work. Needless to say, I absolutely adored it.

The novel is narrated by Frances, a ten-year-old girl with just the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and active curiosity about the world around her. As the story opens, Frances – one of six children – is sent by her mother to stay with the Lawrences, a family of ‘horsey’ relatives who live in Leicestershire. Aunt Lawrence is a spiteful, domineering woman, intent on belittling Frances and her rather impoverished family, making light of their father and his work for a mattress company. (Frances’ father is in fact a legal adviser to the firm, a role that Aunt Lawrence appears to have forgotten, preferring instead to imply he is a lowly labourer. There is quite a lot snobbery in this novel, particularly amongst the Lawrences.) The Lawrence girls – eighteen-year-old Ruby and thirteen-year-old Grace – are little better than their mother, adding to the bleak atmosphere at the rather gothic Tower Hill.  It is only once Frances’ father dies that the Lawrences begin to show a degree of sympathy for the girl.

While the novel contains a certain amount of plot – mostly revolving around Frances’ return to her family and their quest to scrape by in reduced circumstances – it is perhaps more concerned with Frances as an individual and her experiences of the things she encounters. There is such pleasure to be gained from seeing the world through this young girl’s eyes, complete with its inherent strangeness and curiosities. Naturally, Comyns conveys this vision with the most wonderful turns of phrase, ranging from the striking to the humorous to the downright surreal. At one point in the story, Ruby takes Frances to the General’s house to the see the ‘skin chairs’, a collection of artefacts brought back from the Boer War. As it turns out, five of the chairs were made from the skins of black men and one from white…

One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did their souls ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them? How had the General brought the skins back? And did the workmen who covered the chairs know what gruesome work they were doing? (p. 19)

The narrative is studded with grotesque images, from the infamous skin chairs to the details of Frances’ nightmares to the General’s contorted face following a severe stroke. All these elements add to the rather morbid feel of the novel as the spectre of death is never far away.

Alongside the eerie imagery, there are various surreal touches dotted through the novel – weirdly off-kilter observations that feel so striking to the reader, particularly given the unvarnished nature of Frances’ tone of voice. As with Sophia in Our Spoons, it is the matter-of-factness of Frances’ delivery that makes these reflections seem so arresting. In the following passage, Frances is thinking about Mrs Alexander, an eccentric lady with ‘a kind of ravaged, fabulous beauty, like some old and exotic doll in a museum, glittering and dusty’. Mrs Alexander has taken a shine to Frances, much to the young girl’s concern, particularly given the unsettling nature of the Mrs A’s claustrophobic home.

There was a lot about monkeys: her house was full of them. And she had once kept a bear, but people had complained because it used to break into church during the services, and it had to be given to a zoo. ‘I sometimes wonder why I ever returned to England, so many unpleasant things happen here.’ (pp. 106-107)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lawrences consider Mrs Alexander to be quite mad; but in truth she is a lonely, unconventional lady, albeit one with outlandish ideas.

What Comyns captures so well in this novel is the way in which children can often be excellent, intuitive judges of character without fully understanding the complexities or underlying motivations at play. Frances knows that Vanda – a somewhat frivolous and careless young widow who lives nearby – is neglectful of her undernourished baby and yet she is not quite old enough to appreciate why this might be the case. Consequently, Frances grows quite attached to young Jane (and vice versa), visiting and helping to take care of her when she can.

Several of the adult characters are pretty frightful, from the venomous Aunt Lawrence with her pretentious ideals to the feckless Vanda whose disregard for Jane results in near tragedy. The most striking exception to this rule is Mr Blackwell, a kindly man who befriends Frances following his move to Springfield (the property once occupied by the General). Mr Blackwell’s friendship is a source of much brightness for Frances and her family, easing their money worries following several years of poverty.

Alongside the poignancy and dark humour, there are some beautiful descriptive passages here, packed full of detail on the intricacies of Frances’ world. In the following passage, Frances reimagines each room in her childhood home, a technique she uses to stave off the horrific nightmares after her father’s death.

To keep myself awake and to calm myself I would go through each room at home so that it almost seemed as if I was there. I tried to recall everything they contained: the yellow rug in the drawing-room, which we used to cut pieces from to make dolls’ wigs; the faded morning-room curtains with monkeys climbing up them – it was always a sign that summer was coming when they were hung; the enormous brass bedstead in the spare room, all draped in chintz curtains, with its feather mattress – sometimes we slept there when we were ill, because it was on the sunny side of the house, and Father used to thump the mattress to make a hollow for us to lie in. (p. 30)

In short, this is a magical novel in which a bright, curious girl must navigate some of the challenges of adolescence. It is by turns funny, eerie, poignant and bewitching. A spellbinding read, one that reminds me a little of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I can’t recommend it more highly than that.

The Skin Chairs was published by Virago Books (currently out of print); personal copy.

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

Back at the end of February (before the current guidance on social distancing came into place), I was lucky enough to attend an evening hosted by Faber & Faber, a showcase for recently published and forthcoming books. Eimear McBride was there, and she read a passage from her latest novel, Strange Hotel, a book I’d already been thinking of picking up before the reading. McBride introduced it by saying – and I’m paraphrasing from memory here – ‘if you want to know about hotels, this is not the book for you’. A very apt statement as it turns out…

Strange Hotel is not a typical ‘hotel novel’, the type of story peppered with interactions between various characters (frequently odd or idiosyncratic), thrown together for the duration of their trips. Instead, it’s a somewhat abstract or enigmatic work, the type of book where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

As the novel opens, the central character – an unnamed female protagonist in her mid-thirties – is checking into a hotel in Avignon, the first of five anonymous rooms we see during the novel, each in a different city. While the specific reason for these visits is never made explicit, there does seem to be a guiding principle or ‘plan’ underpinning the woman’s actions. She drinks wine, toys with the idea of a one-night-stand with a fellow guest, even goes as far as the act of sex itself – just as long as there are no requirements for either party to linger around afterwards.

For the protagonist, there is a degree of enjoyment in the dance, a sense of pleasure from reading the signals correctly – sometimes taking things to their natural conclusion should she feel so inclined. Nevertheless, in certain instances there is frustration too, especially if the man she decides to go to bed with doesn’t seem to understand the unwritten rules of the game.

She thinks she was as explicit as she could’ve been from the earliest on so she cannot attribute it to a lack of communication. He’d seemed bright enough not to arrive with any inexplicable assumptions and, initially, gave no indication he had. As far as she’s concerned, the first stage was fine. Both bodies performed exactly as planned. In fact, in every way as well as she’d hoped. He had also seemed happy enough. It was only afterwards things took a turn for the worse. She hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. To be honest, she’s not even sure if she has. Well, obvious interpretations of knitted brows and the snatching-up of discarded clothing aside, how could she be? She is also without inclination to press. She has absolutely no interest in violating what is private, his feelings are his business alone. She just wishes he hadn’t presumed she possessed quite so many of her own. (pp. 53–54, Faber & Faber)

As the woman travels from city to city – alighting in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin – little hints of her backstory gradually begin to emerge. There are glimpses of an earlier relationship, once happy and contented, but now very much in the past. She envies other people’s optimism, their faith in a future that seems reasonable and alive, emotions she recalls experiencing herself some years earlier, only for this existence to shatter and disappear. The old life must remain where it belongs; otherwise it may well prove fatal, breaking her will and desire for self-protection.

No.

Stop.

Turn.

She should and should not think of this. If the past comes in it will wring her neck. So, she prevails upon her memory to recollect it as though from far away. And it is far away. Now, very far away. (p. 71)

There is an unsentimental directness to the protagonist’s encounters with men, a refreshing lack of expectations or underlying emotions in these transient pairings. It is only during the final vignette in the book – a one-night-stand with a man in Austin – that any deeper feelings threaten to break through. As memories from the past are stirred and resurrected, the woman tries to distance herself from them, attempting to re-establish the barrier designed to prevent emotional involvement. There is no room in her life for impulse or attachment now. These notions are part of her earlier life, elements that should remain hidden or suppressed.

She is certain of the rightness of all of this. So, she ushers herself back towards the listlessness that has, for all these years, kept her in the manner which she wishes she preferred. Collected. Other side of the glass. But she liked his face. She liked his laugh and the weird way their bodies kept insisting on contact. This, however, does not alter the fact that the only place for impulse is in her past. She knows this. She has made it like that so everything occurring, after the old life stopped, would simply be an again. A kind of repeat. Nothing new. Pathetic really, when she thinks of it. If she allowed herself to, she might admit she’s grown tired of her own loneliness, which she really doesn’t want to have yet. Because it has come to be all I know. (pp. 124–125)

Running through the book is a strong sense of self-reflection, mostly stemming from the explorations of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, her hypotheses and rationalisations. It’s a style I found very compelling despite the degree of ambiguity in the narrative – for instance, the significance of the cities and the reasons for the individual visits are never explicitly revealed. Plus, the protagonist herself remains somewhat mysterious, almost tantalisingly out of reach. (By the end of the book, she is in her late forties, prompting questions about what may have happened in the intervening years.) This adds to the elusive feel of the novel, making it an intriguing, hypnotic read – one where the subject matter and literary style seem to be working together in perfect harmony.  

McBride also excels at capturing the abstract nature of hotel rooms, liminal spaces that seem to be located between the boundaries of existence, enabling us to exist in a kind of alternate reality. They are places where we can adopt different personalities, act out our fantasies or simply step away from the pressures of life – for a day or two at least.

In summary, Strange Hotel is an immersive, enigmatic novel, one that explores themes of identity, self-reflection and some of our strategies for distancing ourselves from the past. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an intriguing, somewhat abstract read.

Strange Hotel is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. First published in 1933, the novel is being reissued by Handheld Press (publication date: 23rd March) in a beautiful new edition complete with drawings by Ann Stafford, the illustrator in the writing partnership of Oliver and Stafford.

The novel focuses on twenty-seven-year-old Hilary Fane, who has just become engaged to Basil Rainford, a busy surgeon based in Edinburgh. To support herself in the year before marriage, Hilary sets off to find a temporary job in London, something she hopes will be relatively easy given her degree-level education and experience as a librarian. However, the search for work proves challenging and time-consuming, more so that one might anticipate for someone with Hilary’s qualifications. (Several employers appear to be looking for a ‘Woman of Personality’, although it is never quite clear what this really means in practice!) In time though, persistence pays off, and Hilary is offered the role of a clerk at Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street – something she dare not turn down even if the work itself sounds rather dull and boring.

A clerk: it sounds dreary, but I daren’t refuse. It may lead to something, after all. (I wonder how many people get themselves landed for incredible years by that hope and by being too scared afterwards to throw up one job and look for another?) Anyway, I took it. I may have been a fool. I know there’s precious little prospect of advancement unless one’s head and shoulders better than the other people. But if I am, and if someone who matters notices it in time, I shall have my chance. (p. 23)

The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents or Basil – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the Everyman’s store. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a lowly wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. While there is clearly a safety net at hand – returning home to Edinburgh is always an option – Hilary is determined to stick it out, if only to prove Basil wrong in his dismissal of her efforts as some kind of misguided folly.

At first, Hilary is tasked with writing address for labels for books to be sent out to the store’s customers, filling in for a girl who is recovering from appendicitis. In a lucky break, Hilary comes into contact with Mr Grant, one of the store’s directors, whom she promptly impresses with her initiative when resolving a customer issue. As a consequence, Mr Grant arranges for Hilary to be transferred to the Book Department where her skills might be better utilised as a member of the sales team. The actual recommending and selling of books comes naturally to Hilary, playing to her strengths of patience, determination and attentiveness. It’s just the mental arithmetic that lets her down –something she finds difficult to do in a hurry, especially when under pressure. Nevertheless, Hilary sticks with it, and a transfer to the Library soon follows.

It is here in the Library that Hilary really begins to come into her own, taking charge of Fiction C, the least important of Everyman’s subscription services in the hierarchy of plans. Through Hilary’s observations on these services, we see the petty snobberies and prejudices inherent in certain parts of society at the time, where an individual’s subscription plan becomes a direct reflection of their class and social status.

The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/– a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath. The titled or indolent send menials to Miss Rivington for Fiction A or to Miss Landry for A Select. All the A subscribers come under the Rational Reading scheme, but the Fiction C pariahs appear unobtrusively in person and carry their books away in leathercraft satchels or string bags. (p. 103)

It is also here where Hilary must negotiate the thorniest aspects of staff politics through her dealings with Miss Sparling, a woman who resents Hilary’s presence in the Library and the subsequent impact this creates. At the request of Mr Grant, Hilary is to review the library process and systems with a view to making recommendations for improvement, a project she carries out with great efficiency and success. One of her changes results in the introduction of a more democratic system for customers, negating the need for Fiction C subscribers to stand in a separate queue to their Fiction A and B counterparts – thereby making the process feel much more equitable and humane.

In time, Hilary progresses to the role of Assistant Staff Supervisor, a job she relishes for it plays to her excellent organisation skills. In a neat parallel, this rise through the ranks at Everyman’s is mirrored in other areas of life. As her career flourishes, Hilary moves from a basement room in a boarding house to more spacious flat – a place she furnishes with the support of a generous aunt. 

In terms of tone, the novel is shot through with some wonderful comic touches, from the somewhat pretentious interdepartmental memos, to Hilary’s refreshingly witty observations as she documents her experiences at Everyman’s.

Aren’t people odd? What happens to them the instant money leaves their hands? Sell your best friend a packet of biscuits or a toothbrush or a silk handkerchief or a library subscription, and the most angelic personality is immediately submerged by the obsession of Getting one’s Money’s Worth. I didn’t read through many files: it was too indecent. I went to quickly on to my pile of letters from fulminating Colonels in Bedford and Bath and Harrogate who complain that they got nothing but ‘pert novels by pups’, and the women who are ‘quite at a loss to understand…’ (p. 129)

Throughout the book, the story touches on various aspects of working e.g. adapting to change, office politics, managing finances, and supporting colleagues – at one point, Hilary helps a young member of staff who must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, highlighting once again the societal attitudes of the day.

Alongside Hilary’s adventures, the novel also offers a marvellous insight into the world of retail in the 1930s. The day-to-day workings of a busy department store are lovingly brought to life in a way that feels both charming and authentic.

Overall, this is an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history. 

Business as Usual is published by Handheld Press, my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.  

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

One of my current aims is to read more memoirs, largely prompted by some critically-acclaimed releases such as Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, a book that made my end-of-year highlights in 2019. Motherwell: A Girlhood is a memoir by the late Deborah Orr, the esteemed Guardian journalist who died from breast cancer last year. Rather than documenting Orr’s career in journalism, Motherwell focuses on the author’s childhood, mostly spanning the period from the mid-1960s through to the 1970s and early ‘80s, a time of significant social change in some regions of the UK. Moreover, the book’s title has a dual meaning, representing both the Scottish town near Glasgow where Orr grew up – Motherwell – and the nature of the relationship between Orr and her mother, Win – the latter prompting the question as to whether Win was able to ‘mother well’ when caring for Deborah and her brother, David.

Ostensibly, this memoir is an exploration of Orr’s fractured relationship with Win, the formidable woman who held the reins of power within the Orr household, much to the frustration of Deborah if not the rest of the family. A series of memories and reflections emerge, several of which are connected to ‘the bureau’ an imposing cabinet housing various objects and documents controlled by Win, a serial hoarder. (It is a highly symbolic object, an heirloom ultimately inherited by Deborah and installed in her London home.)

The bureau, like all three of my childhood homes, was the unchallenged domain of my mother, scrupulously well organised and governed by a surprisingly complex web of boundaries. […]

John [Deborah’s father] never delved behind the flap in the bureau. Win handled all the household’s paperwork, writing in her neat, cursive script or her neat block capitals. He would add his impressive signature where she told him to put it.

The rules were Win’s – and the power – but John tended to be their enforcer. (pp. 4-5, W&N)

As the book unfolds, the subtle nuances of Deborah’s relationship with Win become increasingly apparent. For the most part, Win is tenacious and terrifying, a woman obsessed with the need to keep up appearances; and yet she is also spirited and sociable, hailing from a large, working-class family with traditions of its own.

Having moved to Scotland from Essex at the time of her marriage to John, Win has experienced much suffering during her life, a point that becomes clear as her backstory is revealed. Furthermore, there is the sense that Win is unable to break that pattern of hardship with her own daughter, thereby implying that Deborah must bear a similar burden and conform to the expectations of the local community and society as a whole. The principle of conformity looms large in Motherwell, a town with the power to crush individuality and aspiration, notions it considers to be either shameful or fanciful.

Motherwell was a difference engine with a difference, calculating everything that might make a person unlike the other persons, then roaring into the sacred work of driving that devil out of them. Conformity was absolutely everything. Failure to conform to the fearlessness of the steelworker had torpedoed my dad’s self-esteem. Failure to be Scottish was a problem for my mum in Motherwell, just as failure to be English had been a failure for my dad in Essex. In both places I was a chimerical beast, an oddity. (p.43)

Unsurprisingly, Deborah longs to break free from the restrictions imposed by Win and by the town of Motherwell itself. In truth, Win would like nothing better than to keep Deborah with her in Motherwell, almost as an extension of herself – like an extra limb or appendage, the removal of which would lead to major trauma and grief.

Nevertheless, for all her pride, prejudices and other faults, Win is capable of occasional moments tenderness where a more loving relationship emerges between mother and daughter. There are recollections of shared experiences, instances of Win and Deborah lying in bed together, just like the members of any ‘normal’ family might do.

John, too, is anything but black and white. Initially seen as the more playful and supportive of the two parents (the young Deborah idolises him), John has his own demons in the form of drink, gambling and a capacity for occasional violence – factors that prompt a reassessment of his personality over time. As with other sections of the book, there is a striking sense of honesty in the way Orr writes about these aspects of family life, the gradual process of realisation that someone close to you may not be quite so perfect after all.

Alongside the author’s reflections on the nature of motherhood and family, there is another, equally compelling side to Motherwell, one of broader significance. In writing this remarkable book, Orr has given us a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the decimation of the steel industry – particularly on Motherwell and the surrounding community. At its peak, the steelworks employed more than half of Motherwell’s adults, many of them stationed at Ravenscraig, the beating heart of the local manufacturing trade. After years of financial starvation, Ravenscraig closed in 1992, with the demolition of its the iconic cooling towers following in 1996 – an eerie event witnessed by Deborah and her immediate family.  

Motherwell is the town I was born and bred in, a coal and steel town on the lip of the Clyde Valley. By the time I was thirty years old, it wasn’t a coal and steel town any more. Motherwell lost its identity in the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, along with wave after wave of redundant workers. Personal identities were shattered. But group identity was shattered too. The people of Motherwell were used to being part of something much, much bigger than themselves. When it went, so quickly, Motherwell became a town without a purpose. I couldn’t stand the place, even when it was still in its pomp. But I loved it too. Still do. (pp. 1-2)

Also running through the book is the theme of narcissism, acting as a kind of lens or filter through which several elements are viewed. The spectre of narcissism is present in many aspects of Deborah’s life, from the relationship with ex-husband, Will Self, to the politics within the Orr household during childhood, to some of the ongoing failings of wider society itself.

Because here’s the thing. Once you know how to spot it, narcissism is everywhere. Narcissism explains many aspects of human society. It is, I believe, the psychological motor behind patriarchy, behind racism and behind most, if not all, prejudice. The need to feel better than others, or that others are no better than you, whether in a family, a group or in the whole wide world, is a need that many people feel, especially in this age of individualism. (p. 208)

In short, Motherwell is a staggeringly good memoir – poignant, beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. (I couldn’t help but feel some element of compassion for Win despite her terrible failings.) Orr weaves together all the different strands so brilliantly, moving seamlessly from memories of her upbringing to expressions of anger about the devastation of the steel industry to pertinent asides on the toxic nature of narcissism and its power to destroy. She is so candid in her analysis of a difficult childhood, unsparing in the visceral act of self-exploration. This is a powerful, humane and beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Motherwell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald

This collection of eight short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald – one of my all-time favourite writers – was first published in 2000, the year of her death. Interestingly, the settings range from the historical (19th century Brittany and 17th century Australia) to the more contemporary (Britain in the 1950s/’60s and Scotland at the end of the 20th century). In this respect, the book could be viewed as a kind of bridge between Fitzgerald’s early novels and her later, historical works.

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I won’t cover all of the individual pieces; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole.

In The Axe – one of the standout stories in this collection – a middle manager is tasked with the job of making a number of his staff redundant to reduce resources. While some employees seem happy to move on or take early retirement, others may prove more reluctant to leave, especially if they have worked for the company for several years. The manager is particularly worried about his clerical assistant, Mr Singlebury, a rather apologetic, fastidious individual who appears to have no real life outside of work.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he [Mr Singlebury] wore a blue suit and a green knitted garment with a front zip. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he wore a pair of grey trousers of man-made material which he called ‘my flannels’, and a fawn cardigan. The cardigan was omitted in summer. He had, however, one distinguishing feature, very light blue eyes, with a defensive expression, as though apologizing for something which he felt guilty about, but could not put right. The fact is that he was getting old. Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day. (p. 26)

The Axe is conveyed in the form of a written report from the manager to his superiors, recounting his experiences with the redundancies and Mr Singlebury in particular. At first, Singlebury seems to take the news reasonably quietly, much to the manager’s relief. Nevertheless, just before his departure, Singlebury invites the manager to dinner at his home – a suitably sad and depressing room in a boarding house – where he confesses his concerns as what will happen once the job ends. Consequently, the manager is left dreading the prospect of Singlebury’s return, fearing his assistant may take it upon himself to turn up to work as if nothing has happened.

This is a terrific story with a creeping sense of dread, particularly towards the end. As with the rest of Fitzgerald’s work, the central character of Singlebury is drawn with great insight and sensitivity. Here we have an ‘invisible’ man, beavering away at his role without any real credit or recognition, tossed aside with little thought in the name of economy. It’s a very striking story, brilliantly told.

In Beehernz – one of the contemporary stories set in the wilds of Scotland – an artistic director is dispatched to the remote island of Reilig to persuade a reclusive maestro to come out of retirement.

Iona is three miles long and one mile wide, and Reilig looked considerably smaller. The blue sky, cloudless that day, burned as if it was as salt as the water below them. There was no sand or white shell beach as you approached, and the rocky shoreline was not impressive, just enough to give you a nasty fall. (p. 60)

The director, Hopkins, is hoping Beehernz will agree to conduct a couple of Mahler concerts at a forthcoming festival, something the maestro has shied away from doing over the past 40 years. However, once Hopkins comes face-to-face with his target, any potential sense of influence begins to slip away.

On this island of Reilig he felt authority leaving him, with no prospect of being replaced by anything else. Authority was scarcely needed in a kingdom of potatoes and seabirds. (p. 66)

Beehernz is another beautifully observed story – this one underscored with Fitzgerald’s trademark dry wit.

There is humour too in Not Shown, a story of small-mindedness and petty jealousies. It features Fothergill, ‘the resident administrator, or dogsbody’ at Tailfirst Farm which sits in the grounds of a large country house. While the farm is open to the public during the summer, the house itself is not – the latter being home to Lady P, the somewhat dismissive head of the manor.

Assisting Fothergill at the farm are two local women: Mrs Fearne, formerly of The Old Pottery Shop, and Mrs Twine, who used to be a dinner lady at the village school, both lovingly described in the following passage.

So far there had been worryingly few visitors, but he disposed carefully of his small force. Mrs Twine couldn’t stand for too long, and was best off in the dining-room where there was a solid table to lean against; on the other hand, she was sharper than Mrs Feare, who let people linger in the conservatory and nick the tomatoes.

Mrs Feare was more at home in the shop with the fudge and postcards, and her ten-year-old son biked up after school to work out the day’s VAT on his calculator. Mrs Twine also fancied herself in the shop, but had no son to offer. (pp. 101–102)

This peaceful unit is soon disturbed by the arrival of Mrs Horrabin, who takes it upon herself to replace Mrs Feare and Mrs Twine, claiming ‘these two old boilers standing in the corners of the room’ will scare off the visitors. After all, members of the public just want to have a good nose around; ‘they want to see the bedroom and the john’, not all the other padding. As it turns out, Mrs Horrabin has designs on other aspects of Tailfirst, not least Mr Fothergill himself. Like many of the stories in this collection, Not Shown has an ending that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, opening up several possibilities of what might happen to these characters in the days and weeks that follow.

Overall, I found Fitzgerald’s contemporary/20th-century stories more satisfying than her historical ones, possibly because they chime more strongly with my general reading preferences per se. Nevertheless, one or two of the historical pieces certainly warrant a mention here.

The titular story, The Means of Escape, is perhaps one of the most striking pieces in the book – the tale of a Rector’s daughter who develops feelings for an escaped convict she finds hiding in her father’s church. The sense of time and place – 17th century Tasmania – is brilliantly evoked, from the details of the church and Rectory to the language and dialogue at play. This is a very memorable story with a surprising twist at the end. Definitely a highlight of the collection.

Other historical stories feature a group of artists on a painting trip to Brittany, and a couple who must rely on two homing pigeons for communication at a vital time (their home being on a remote farm in Auckland, miles from the nearest town). Irrespective of the period and setting, Fitzgerald is able to create characters and worlds that feel entirely credible and believable, such is her perception and attention to detail.

As ever, Fitzgerald displays great sympathy towards her characters, particularly when they are at their most vulnerable or damaged. These stories offer glimpses into strange, mysterious worlds, conveyed with sensitivity, credibility and intuition. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

The Means of Escape is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

The American writer Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story, The Lottery (The New Yorker, 1948), a piece that highlights the cruelty and violence that can stem from mob psychology. Dark Tales (published by Penguin Classics in 2016) is a collection of seventeen of Jackson’s later short stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. The stories themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society.

In The Possibility of Evil – the opening story in the collection – the seemingly upstanding Miss Strangeworth takes it upon herself to be the guardian of decency in her home town, the place where her family has lived for generations. However, our protagonist goes about her mission in the most underhand of ways, sending poison-pen letters to various residents, warning them of the evil that dwells within their midst.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion. Mr Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters. Miss Chandler, the librarian, and Linda Stewart’s parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letters to open their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to do it. It was far more sensible for Miss Chandler to wonder what Mr Shelley’s first wife had really died of than to take a chance on not knowing. (pp. 6–7) 

Jackson excels at creating characters and situations that seem perfectly normal and respectable at first sight, only to reveal themselves to be somewhat off-kilter as the narrative unfolds. In What a Thought, one of the most striking pieces in this collection, a seemingly blissful domestic scenario takes an alarming turn when the protagonist, Margaret, is gripped by a sudden urge to lash out at her husband.

She flipped the pages of her book idly; it was not interesting. She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it. (p. 94)

In the minutes that follow, Margaret must wrestle with two competing influences over her actions: an insatiable desire to murder her husband, and the notion that she is being ridiculous and irrational. After all, Margaret loves her husband; what on earth would she do without him?

Several of these stories explore themes of confinement and entrapment, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity.

In The Good Wife, an overbearing husband keeps his wife locked away in her bedroom following a suspected affair – something his wife denies. Moreover, the husband opens and reads all his wife’s letters, frequently replying to them on his partner’s behalf.

In The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith, a newlywed becomes the subject of curiosity amongst her new neighbours following her recent marriage. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mr Smith may be hiding something sinister from his past. Do the neighbours warn Mrs Smith of the speculation surrounding her husband or abandon the young woman to a potentially dangerous fate? You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out.

Running through these stories, there is a sense that Jackson is highlighting the relatively limited roles woman are allowed to play in society – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. In The Beautiful Stranger, a dutiful wife is worried about the return of her husband from a business trip, fearing his dissatisfaction and anger following an earlier quarrel. However, the man who appears is not John, the woman’s husband, but a beautiful stranger full of warmth and generosity. Like many others in the collection, this is a creepy little story, underscored with a sense of eeriness and unease.

In other stories – often those containing elements of fantasy – characters appear to be trapped in houses (The Visit), paintings (The Story We Used to Tell) or recurring scenarios (Paranoia). In the latter, a man becomes increasingly convinced he is being followed by a stranger in a light-coloured hat on the way home from work – a journey of some importance as it is his wife’s birthday. As the action plays out, Jackson ratchets up the sense of unease, culminating in a twist that I didn’t see coming. This is an unnerving story with a sting in its tail, a very effective little piece.

The Visit is another highlight in the collection – quite Gothic in style, it features a young ingenue with a curious mind, a large house replete with an imposing tower, and at least one character who may or may not be a ghost. (As is the case with many of the best short stories, Jackson leaves enough scope for the reader to bring their own sense of imagination into play; and The Visit is a great example of where this can work so effectively.)

Before wrapping up, there are two final stories I would like to mention. In The Bus, an elderly woman is abandoned at night in the middle of nowhere by a bus driver who claims to have arrived at her stop. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for our protagonist, she is picked up by a couple of passing truckers and dropped at a nearby inn. What starts as the journey from hell turns even more sinister once the woman steps into the building – it appears oddly familiar in many ways, almost like a remodelled version of her old home, complete with recognisable touches. This is another nightmarish story where the central character seems locked in a loop, desperately seeking the safety of home.

Also deeply unsettling is The Summer House, in which a couple decide to stay at their holiday home beyond the traditional end of season, much to the surprise of the locals. All too soon, the couple find themselves running out of vital supplies – food, kerosene, a functioning car – while the permanent residents seem very reluctant to help. Once again, Jackson proves herself adept at developing a growing sense of anxiety as the story plays out.

Overall, Dark Tales is a very good collection of stories, one that showcases Jackson’s eye for the twisted and off-kilter in seemingly everyday situations. A deliciously disquieting read for a dark winter’s night.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997, tr. Martin Aitken, 2018)

A haunting, dreamlike novella that really gets under your skin.

Single mother, Vibeke, and her eight-year old son, Jon, have recently moved to a small town in Norway where Vibeke works as an arts and culture officer in the local community.

Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between mother and son, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. At home Vibeke seems more interested in her books and personal appearance than in Jon’s wellbeing, frequently daydreaming of men she has met at work and hopes to bump into again somewhere in the neighbourhood. Jon, for his part, has a natural curiosity about the world around him, using his imagination to keep himself occupied in the absence of other stimulation.

He looks at the snow outside and thinks of all the snowflakes that go to make a pile. He tries to count how many, in his head. They talked about it at school today. Ice crystals, they’re called. No two are ever the same. How many can there be in a snowball? Or on the windowpane, in a small speck of snow? (p. 10)

The novel unfolds over the course of a bitterly cold night during which both of these individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. While Jon hopes his mother will spend the evening making a cake for his ninth birthday, Vibeke has plans of her own as she leaves the house to visit the local library. Unbeknownst to Vibeke, Jon is no longer at home at this point, the young boy having already left the house to give his mother some space for the longed-for birthday preparations.

She goes out into the vestibule, buttons her coat and studies herself in the mirror, pops her head back into the hall and calls out to Jon. She looks at her reflection again. She decided on hardly any makeup at all. He’s not answering. She calls again and glances at the time, less than half an hour before they close. He’s started going to bed on his own now, she’s not even allowed to come in and say good night. She thinks of his eyelashes, almost white. She moves her head from side to side, checking her hair in the mirror, the way it falls so softly about her face, her scalp still warm from the time it took to dry it. She snatches the keys from the little table, picks up the bag with the books in it and smiles at herself in the mirror again before opening the front door and stepping out. (p. 34)

Both Jon and Vibeke meet various strangers during their night-time wanderings, experiences that highlight the trust they place in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous individuals. Vibeke, in particular, lets her imagination run away with her, investing unrealistic hopes and expectations in a chance encounter with Tom, a traveller who works at the fairground currently in town.  Meanwhile, Jon comes into contact with a series of strangers, culminating in him placing his trust in a woman who also has a connection with the travelling funfair.

What I love about this novella is the way Ørstavik seamlessly switches between Vibeke and Jon throughout the narrative, highlighting both the connection and sense of separateness that surrounds these characters. It’s a testament to the author’s skill as a writer that this technique never feels confusing or gimmicky in any way. At various points in the story, Ørstavik also tests the reader’s emotions by creating situations that appear to place her characters in vulnerable or dangerous situations, raising questions of trust, protection and culpability. We fear for the safety of both mother and son, conscious of the subtle sense of foreboding and tension that continues to build as the bitter night unfolds.

Love is an excellent, thought-provoking book by an accomplished writer. Ørstavik takes care to avoid condemning Vibeke for the casual neglect of her son, thereby allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the scenarios as they unfold. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the deeply unsettling feel of the novella as a whole. Very highly recommended indeed, both for book groups and for individual readers alike.

Love is published by And Other Stories; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.