Tag Archives: Short Stories

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.

While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to another.

The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)

Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.

The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.

Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.

In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any minute.

But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)

Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.

He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)

When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.

The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.

As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.

She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)

While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.

The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.

What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.

This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.

My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was The New Yorker’s England correspondent for the duration of the Second World War and well beyond. During the war years, she produced a significant output for the journal, comprising a series of fortnightly ‘Letters from London’ and twenty-one short stories (roughly one every three months). Luckily for us, these insightful stories have been collected together in this beautiful edition from Persephone Books, initially issued in 1999.

In essence, these are stories of ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front. While the war alters the lives of all the characters we encounter here, the battleground itself is elsewhere – off-camera so to speak. Instead, we see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources.

Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity.

In This Flower, Safety (1940), Miss Ewing, a wealthy lady from London, tries to escape the horrors of war by fleeing to a seaside town only to discover that even the most sedate of places can feel somewhat exposed. In her heart of hearts, Miss Ewing knows that her life will never be the same again.

Two or three of the stories touch upon one of the major consequences of war for those left behind – the need for families to accommodate distant relations, friends or evacuees in an effort to do their bit. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this often leads to tensions as individuals from different classes or social spheres try to get on with one another while living under the same roof. In other instances, it is merely a clash of personalities and personal habits.

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, Mrs. Ramsay’s War (1940), the titular character is finding her house guests – the ebullient Mrs Parmenter and her two Pekingese dogs – rather difficult to bear.

‘But how we shall revel in the spring when it comes!’ cried Mrs. Parmenter. ‘There! Don’t their brave little faces give you fresh hope?’ Mrs. Ramsay felt that it would take more than a few snowdrops to give her fresh hope. It would take something really big, like the back end of a Daimler loaded with Parmenter luggage going rapidly towards London. (p. 17)

It’s a beautifully observed story, one that also demonstrates the author’s talent for dry humour and wit. Combined Operations (1942) explores a similar theme as a young couple, whose London flat has been destroyed in a raid, outstay their welcome when they ‘visit’ friends in the country.

Other stories of evacuees, most notably, In Clover (1940), expose the snobbery and prejudices of the upper-middle classes. In this piece, the refined Mrs Fletcher is repulsed by the physical appearance of the Clark family, the dishevelled evacuees she is to accommodate in her pristine home.

She had known that her guests were coming from one of the poorest parts of London and it was natural they should look dingy, but she had imagined a medium dinginess that would wear off with one or two good scrubbings and a generous handout of gingham pinafores. The dinginess of the Clarks, which seemed to have soaked in far deeper than just their skins, was a setback, but Mrs. Fletcher met it with her most charming smile. She even drew one of the children towards her as she talked, and stood with an arm round his bony shoulders, trying not to shudder, thinking that she must take a good hot bath before she went anywhere near the nursery. (pp. 22-23)

Right from the start, it is patently obvious that Mrs Fletcher and Mrs Clark have very little in common. Unfortunately for Mrs Fletcher, her belief that money can solve almost every difficulty one encounters in life proves to be somewhat misguided.

There is a strong sense of loneliness running through many of these stories, augmented by feelings of isolation, inadequacy and loss. Panter-Downes is perhaps at her best when she mines this territory by delving more deeply into her characters’ emotions.

In Goodbye, My Love (1941), one of the best stories in the collection, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, the clock in the flat a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety.

It’s the Reaction (1943) is in a similar vein to the previous piece. In this, my favourite story in the collection, a lonely young woman is buoyed by the camaraderie of war when she finally gets to know her neighbours as they take shelter together during the Blitz. However, once the sequence of air raids is over, life in Miss Birch’s apartment block reverts to normal – and when she tries to rekindle the new friendships, Miss Birch soon discovers the fickle nature of relationships, even in times of war.

Mrs Chalmers, if she and Miss Birch met in the lift, said, ‘Do you know, I’ve been meaning and meaning to ring you,’ and at the back of her worried baby eyes and plucked eyebrows, Miss Birch could see the thought forming that one of these days they must really ask the old girl over, fill her up with gin, do something about it. After a while, even that thought disappeared. Mrs Chalmers simply said ‘Hello’ and smiled vaguely, as though Miss Birch were someone she had once met at a party. (pp. 139-140)

Other stories touch on the sense of absence or loss that can characterise a country at war. I loved this line from Fin de Siècle (1943) in which a young couple reflect on their friends’ house – now standing empty and forsaken following the occupants’ departure.

They had gone, and the integrity, the personality of the house had splintered like matchwood. (p.73)

The advent of social change which accompanied the war is another prominent theme, particularly in the later pieces. In Cut Down the Trees (1943), Mrs Walsingham, a member of the English gentry, opens her home to accommodate forty Canadian soldiers in support of the war effort. Interestingly though, it is not Mrs Walsingham who struggles to get to grips with a different way of life, but her elderly maid, Dossie – a woman who remains very fearful of change. In essence, Dossie bemoans the loss of the old guard, the disappearance of the caps and aprons who served the house and maintained order. This new practice of her mistress taking dinner in the kitchen will come to no good; the passing of old traditions and customs is something to regret rather than embrace.

She disliked the innovation intensely. It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner. (pp. 149-150)

In Year of Decision (1944), an upper-middle-class couple try hard to preserve their old rituals however pointless they seem to be. The wife in particular struggles to keep on top of the house, a situation that leaves her feeling both frazzled and exhausted. The husband, on the other hand, longs for the action and excitement of war – instead, he finds himself confined to a Government office on account of his specialist knowledge, a valuable commodity in a time of crisis. In a sense, some aspects of this story feel like a bit of a rehearsal for One Fine Day, Panter-Downes’ wonderful novel about a couple adjusting to a new way of life following the end of the Second World War.

Oher stories in this fine collection feature a young woman facing up to pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood in the absence of her husband, a mistress who realises that she may never discover if her married lover is injured or killed in action, and the various members of a sewing circle as they gossip and bicker about all manner of subjects.

All in all, these are beautifully observed vignettes, shot through with humour, understanding, insight and humanity. Recommended for readers interested in the British way of life in the 1940s.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven is published by Persephone Books, personal copy.

Liars in Love by Richard Yates

I’ve been on a bit of Richard Yates kick lately. First with A Good School (1978), his loosely autobiographical novel of life as a teenage boy at a single-sex boarding school, and now with Liars in Love (1981), his second collection of short stories. While Liars isn’t quite as strong as his earlier collection, the superb Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), it’s still very much worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of this author’s work or short stories in general – Yates is widely acknowledged as a true master of the form.

Once again, Yates demonstrates a deep understanding of the frailties of human nature here. More specifically, he explores the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the feelings of worthlessness that can stem from small failures, and the lack of connection as promising relationships break down and individuals drift apart. Here we have failing marriages, disparate households, and children who seem detached and isolated from their parents. It’s vintage Yates territory, as intuitively observed as one might expect.

The collection comprises seven stories each ranging from around 30 to 60 pages in length. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each story in turn. Instead, my aim is to pick out a few favourites to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The opening story, Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired, is narrated by a young boy living in Greenwich Village with his sister and mother who is trying her hand – quite poorly as it turns out – at producing sculptures. The mother is a classic Yates character; having separated from her husband some three years earlier, she is now a somewhat tragic and deluded woman whose best years are almost certainly behind her.

She was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy. She believed in the aristocracy, but there was no reason to suppose the aristocracy would ever believe in her. (p. 30)

This is a thoughtful story laced with moments of pathos and sadness, a strong start to the collection.

Children feature again in one of my favourites pieces, Trying Out for the Race. In this story, two mothers with kids agree to share a house together in Scarsdale as a means of combining their respective resources. However, in spite of the fact that the two women, Elizabeth Hogan Baker and Lucy Towers, have been friends for years, they turn out to be somewhat mismatched as living companions. Here’s a brief flavour of the myriad of tensions that ensue – Nancy is Elizabeth’s young daughter.

The Towers family shied away from Elizabeth most of the time, and so did Nancy; it was like having a stranger in the house. Coming heavily downstairs in her spike heels, standing at the front windows to stare out at the Post Road as if in deep thought, picking at whatever food was set before her and drinking a lot after dinner as she paged impatiently through many magazines. Elizabeth didn’t even seem to notice how uncomfortable she made everyone feel. (p. 84)

This is a story full of acute observations on the sheer awkwardness and frustrations of living in close quarters with people other than family – a situation familiar to most of us at some point in our lives.

Another of my favourite stories, A Natural Girl, touches on the strained relationship between a father and his much-loved daughter, a young woman named Susan. Yates is typically strong on openings, but this one in particular drew me in from the very first line. Here’s how it begins.

In the spring of her sophomore year, when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him anymore. She regretted it, or at least the tone of it, almost at once, but it was too late: he sat looking stunned for a few seconds and then began to cry, all hunched over to hide his face from her, trying with one unsteady hand to get a handkerchief out of his dark suit. He was one of the five or six most respected hematologists in the United States, and nothing like this had happened to him for a great many years. (p. 37)

While the father struggles to understand why his daughter feels this way, there is in fact no particular reason behind it. As Susan says at one point: “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. I think most intelligent people understand that.”

This is another beautifully observed story which also explores the landscape of Susan’s marriage to her college lecturer, an older man named David Clark. Towards the end of the narrative, things come full circle in more ways than one as Susan makes a brief return visit to the family home before setting out on her life again. The opening and closing sections are particularly poignant.

Others stories focus on an American soldier who requests compassionate leave to visit his estranged mother and sister, both of whom now live in England; a divorced writer who has a fling with a strikingly attractive girl while working on a screenplay in LA; and a young copywriter/editor named Bill Grove, presumably a grown-up version of the protagonist in A Good School.

While much of the subject matter explored in this collection is rather melancholy, there are touches of real tenderness and compassion here. In some ways, Yates is at his best when capturing these moments as he brings a degree of sensitivity and nuance to such scenes. It can be difficult when a quote is presented out of context, but I hope you can see something of it in this passage from Trying Out for the Race.

And Nancy gave her a brief, shy smile before turning away again. Slowly, Elizabeth removed the driving glove from her right hand. She reached across her daughter’s lap, clasped the outer thigh and brought her sliding over, careful to keep her small knees clear of the shuddering gear shift. She held the child’s thighs pressed fast against her own for a long time; then, in a voice so soft it could scarcely be heard over the sound of the car, she said “Listen, it’ll be alright, sweetheart. It’ll be all right.” (p. 92)

In summary, Liars in Love is another very satisfying collection from Yates. There are even glimmers of hope and optimism in some of these stories, a sense of fresh starts, new beginnings or second chances for some of the characters, which is pleasing to see. In many ways, these stories feel all the better for it.

Liars in Love is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience. It is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

Hester Lilly by Elizabeth Taylor

Originally issued in 1954, Hester Lilly was Elizabeth Taylor’s first volume of stories. (It’s also my first experience of her short fiction.) There are some brilliant stories here, up there with some of the best scenes from her longer works. The titular piece, in particular, encapsulates many of this writer’s key trademarks: her ability to create nuanced characters with real emotional depth; her acute observations of the subtleties of human interactions; and her capacity to elicit the reader’s sympathy for difficult individuals in spite of their inherent flaws. I’ll come back to this story at the end of my review; but first, a few words about the collection itself.

Hester Lilly comprises seventeen stories of varying length, from brief sketches lasting a couple of pages to the novella-sized titular piece which opens the collection. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

In the aptly titled story Spry Old Character, a lively veteran horse-trader named Harry has no alternative but to move to a Home for the Blind following the death of his sister/carer. An odd-man-out among the genteel residents of the care home, Harry is left feeling lonely, grumpy and neglected, deflated as he is by the patronising ministrations of Matron and the anodyne environment she seems intent on encouraging.

“You’ll have the company of others like you,” his neighbours had told him. This was not so. He found himself in a society, whose existence he had never, in his old egotism, contemplated and whose ways soon lowered his vitality. He had nothing in common with these faded seamstresses; the prophet-like lay-preacher; an old piano-tuner who believed he was the reincarnation of Beethoven; elderly people who had lived more than half a dim life-time in dark drapers’ shops in country towns. Blind they might not have been; for they found their way about the house, its grounds, the village, with pride and confidence. Indoors, they bickered about the wireless; for the ladies liked a nice domestic play and thought some of the variety programmes ‘suggestive’. The racing results were always switched to something different, hastily, before they could contaminate the air. (pp. 84-85)

In time, Harry makes friends with the local bus drivers and conductors who ferry him around the district on a regular basis – if nothing else, it’s a brief respite from the atmosphere of the home. This is a bittersweet story; the central character is at once both comic and tragic.

Swan-Moving is a very different type of story, one that demonstrates an element of range in Taylor’s work. In this piece, a young swan settles in a dirty pond in a rather shabby, neglected village, much to the fascination of the local residents. Somewhat surprisingly, the swan’s presence seems to spark a sense of change in the locality. As the swan blossoms and grows more resplendent, so do the villagers – for the very first time, they come together to spruce up their village, decorating their houses in bright (albeit rather garish) colours in an effort to improve their environment. This is a lovely story with a slightly magical touch, a delightful addition to the collection.

Taylor’s ear for dialogue comes to the fore in Nods & Becks & Wreathed Smiles as a group of women meet up for a gossip at the local tea shop. Naturally, the subjects under discussion are wide-ranging, from the trials of childbirth to the shortage of fish in the local shops to views on Mrs Liddell’s new ring. This is a short sketch, beautifully observed.

Other stories cover a child’s observations of an elderly woman on holiday from the hustle and bustle of London (The Idea of Age); a woman’s memories of her just-deceased mother as she sits by her side in hospital (First Death of Her Life); and the desperate disappointment of schoolboy’s day out with his mother, their individual worlds seemingly poles apart (A Red-Letter Day). What unites these stories, and many others in this excellent collection, is their ability to capture a scene so effectively, thereby giving the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of the central characters.

Where this collection really excels though is in its depiction of domestic stories: the palpable tensions between semi-estranged partners; the unspoken agonies of lifeless marriages; the painful attempts of a mother to outdo her neighbour.

In Gravement Endommagé, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a married couple – Richard and Louise – drive through the war-ravaged countryside in France, the destruction of the buildings around them only serving to mirror the damaged nature of their relationship. They have come to the continent for a holiday, a trip designed to ‘set things to rights’ between them, their petty bickering with one another having descended into more direct animosity. The years of hardship and isolation during the war have brought about a significant change in Louise, making her fearful and edgy. Now that the grand conflict is over, she remains damaged – intolerant, complaining and overly reliant on drink.

Her doctor, advising the holiday, was only conventional in his optimism. If anyone were benefited by it, it would be the children, stopping at home with their grandmother—for a while, out of the arena. What Richard needed was a holiday away from Louise, and what Louise needed was a holiday from herself, from the very thing she must always take along, the dull carapace of her own dissatisfaction, her chronic unsunniness. (p. 114)

Shadows of the World also falls into this category; it offers a brief yet highly effective snapshot of a family, each individual member orbiting in their own semi-isolated world. This is another beautifully observed story, each thread coming together to form a broader whole.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Hester Lilly, the longest story in the collection at 78 pages. In this piece, a middle-aged woman, Muriel, is dismayed at the prospect of the arrival of her husband’s cousin, a young lady by the name of Hester Lilly. Having been married to Robert for some years, Muriel now feels uncertain of her position in the relationship, and so she imagines Hester, with her undoubted youth and potential beauty, to be a significant threat. However, on Hester’s arrival at the boarding school where Robert works, Muriel fears are initially laid to rest; Hester is gauche, nervous and poorly dressed, every garment appearing to be either too small or too big for her frame.

Nevertheless, it is not long before Muriel realises that she must be on her guard against Hester. With this in mind, she decides upon a pre-emptive strike, casually dropping the following remark into a conversation with her charge: “Of course, you are in love with Robert.” Better to unnerve Hester by tackling the issue head-on before the girl gets a chance to develop any such notions of her own.

Muriel insinuated the idea into the girl’s head, thinking that such an idea would come sooner or later and came better from her, inseparable from the very beginning with shame and confusion. She struck, with that stunning remark, at the right time. For the first week or so Hester was tense with the desire to please, anxiety that she might not earn her keep. Robert would often find her bowed in misery over indecipherable shorthand, or would hear her rip pages out of the typewriter and begin again. The waste-paper basket was usually crammed-fill of spoilt stationary. Once, he discovered her in tears and, half-way across the room to comfort her, wariness overtook him. He walked instead to the window and spoke with his back to her, which seemed to him the only alternative to embracing her. (pp. 8-9)

A little later, Muriel tries to consolidate her position with the following comments, whereby she stresses the triviality of young love and its differentiation from a deeper, more lasting relationship.

“Robert? Oh, yes! Don’t fuss, dear girl. At your age on has to be in love with someone, and Robert does very well for the time being. Perhaps at every age one has to be in love with someone, but when one is young it is difficult to decide whom. Later one becomes more stable. I fell in love with all sorts of unsuitable people—very worrying for one’s mother. But by the time I met Robert I was old enough to be sure that that would last. And it has,” she added quietly; and she chose a strand of white silk and began work on the high-lights of a rose petal. (pp. 13-14)

I suspect some readers might find Muriel a rather cruel and pathetic woman, eaten up with jealousy over the more vulnerable Hester. While I recognise these flaws in Muriel’s character, I couldn’t help but feel a degree of sympathy for her too. She is desperately isolated in her marriage to Robert, a rather cold man who has long revealed himself to be a stranger to her. He no longer displays any tenderness or affection towards Muriel, a fact that is only exacerbated when she finds herself drawn into a compromising position with one of the schoolmasters at a local dance.

This is a terrific story that will test your responses to each of the individual characters. There is also another player in the mix, a desperately sad old woman, Mrs Despenser, who tries to befriend Hester when she goes out for a walk one night. Mrs D is a hangover from a bygone age, a lonely individual living in abject squalor in a dilapidated cottage with only her cat for company. She is desperate for Hester to stay a little while to alleviate her loneliness.

All in all, this is a fine collection of stories, an excellent introduction to Taylor’s short fiction. While a couple of the shorter pieces didn’t quite fly for me, they were never less than well observed. A fairly minor point considering the high quality of the other stories here.

Hester Lilly is published by Virago; personal copy.

Improper Stories by Saki

What a wonderful collection of stories this turned out to be – sharp, pithy and uproariously witty. I first heard about Saki’s Improper Stories via Max’s excellent review from 2014 – you can read it here. Saki (or, to give him his full name, Hector Hugh Munro) began his career as a journalist and political satirist and then went on to write a number of short stories and sketches, a selection of which are included in this volume. Several of his pieces were concerned with the absurdities of Edwardian society, particularly the ludicrous social conventions of the English upper classes. Here are the surface niceties of lavish garden parties, formal dinners and hunting events, all of which fall under Saki’s satirical gaze.

Improper Stories comprises eighteen stories first published in the years leading up to the start of the First World Word. As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; my aims instead are to focus on a few favourites and to give a flavour of the volume as a whole.

Several of Saki’s stories feature mischievous children rebelling against disagreeable, strait-laced guardians. In The Lumber Room, one of my favourites in the collection, Nicholas must stay behind while the rest of the children are treated to a day out at Jagborough sands. It is his punishment for an earlier misdemeanour at the breakfast table, one involving a frog and a basin of ‘wholesome bread-and-milk’. At an early stage in the story, Saki paints a revealing portrait of Nicholas’s rather draconian aunt, the woman in charge of the household – in reality, however, she is only the boy’s ‘aunt-by-assertion’.

It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighbouring town, a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day. (p. 30)

Convinced that young Nicholas will try to sneak off to the prized gooseberry garden while his cousins and brother are away on the trip, the aunt maintains a close watch on the entrances to the patch in an effort to spoil his fun. However, unbeknownst to the aunt, Nicholas has other plans for the day – he wishes to gain entry to the mysterious lumber room, a place normally kept under strict lock and key, only to be accessed by the more privileged members of the household. This is a very effective story in which the knowing child enjoys a moment of triumph over his authoritarian guardian.

In a similar vein, although somewhat darker, is Sredni Vashtar in which a different boy, Conradin, takes his revenge on an aunt by way of his polecat ferret, the pet he has kept hidden in a secret hutch in the garden shed. This is a macabre little story, very much in the style of a classic fairy tale.

Another cunning child plays a central role in Hyacinth, one of the sharpest stories in the collection. The story begins with a conversation between Hyacinth’s mother and her friend, Mrs Panstreppon. Hyacinth’s father is standing for election, and the boy’s mother is convinced that young Hyacinth would be an asset to the campaign. The trouble is, as Mrs P is just about to point out, while Hyacinth might look the part, he cannot necessarily be counted on to behave appropriately. I love the following quote which seems to capture something of Saki’s ridicule of the upper classes and the foolishness of their preoccupations.

‘Not take Hyacinth!’ exclaimed his mother; ‘but why not? Jutterly is bringing his three children, and they are going to drive a pair of Nubian donkeys about the town, to emphasise the fact that their father has been appointed Colonial Secretary. We are making the demand for a strong Navy a special feature in our campaign, and it will be particularly appropriate to have Hyacinth dressed in his sailor suit. He’ll look heavenly.’ (p. 37)

So, Hyacinth is allowed to attend the festivities, and at first he conducts himself impeccably, presenting the young Jutterlys with a gift of butterscotch. But then, while everyone else is busy watching the closing stages of the poll, the children disappear. It soon transpires that Hyacinth has locked the Jutterlys in a pigsty along with a litter of agitated piglets, much to the fury of the piglets’ mother who is now pacing up and down on the other side of the sty door. In effect, Hyacinth is holding the Jutterlys to ransom. If their father wins the election, he will open the door for the sow, allowing her to take wreak havoc on the children; but if his own father triumphs, he will be kind enough to lower a ladder into the sty, thereby enabling the Jutterlys to escape without harm. To discover how the end of the story plays out, you will have to read it for yourself.

Other highlights featuring precious or knowing children include The Boar-Pig, the marvellous tale of a socially-conscious woman who tries to sneak into a garden party unnoticed when in fact she hasn’t actually been invited, and The Story-Teller in which a group of young children take delight in being treated to a dark story with a sting in its tail, much to the dismay of their disapproving guardian.

The Boar-Pig is covered in detail in Max’s review, so I won’t elaborate on it any further here, save to say that it points to another of Saki’s recurring themes: mischievous or playful animals. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the final story of the collection, the fittingly titled Tobermory who turns out to be a most unusual cat. When the rather bland Cornelius Appin – a man with an apparent reputation for cleverness – is invited to Lady Blemley’s house party, he surprises the coterie of guests by announcing that he has been able to teach an animal to talk. The animal in question is, of course, the Blemleys’ cat, Tobermory. Unsurprisingly, everyone present is eager for a demonstration of Mr Appin’s skill, so Tobermory is rounded up and allowed to take centre stage. What follows is a hilarious sequence of revelations; not only does Tobermory speak as eloquently as anyone else at the party, but he also persists in telling the unfiltered truth, thereby revealing various secrets and private conversations much to the embarrassment of everyone present. Here is a brief extract from his pronouncements – Major Barfield is the first to speak.

Major Barfield plunged in heavily to effect a diversion.

‘How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?’

The moment he had said it everyone realised the blunder.

‘One does not usually discuss these matters in public,’ said Tobermory frigidly. ‘From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs.’

The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major. (p. 125)

This is a deliciously impish story with a rather poignant coda, not only for Mr Appin and his fanciful pursuits, but for poor Tobermory too.

Several of the stories included here feature a recurring character, Clovis, who appears to be the embodiment of Saki at his most cutting. When he hears that a baby has gone missing in The Quest, Clovis responds with the following rather hilarious interjection. (Well, hilarious if you are reading the story; maybe not if you’re the parent of the baby in question.)

‘Perhaps an eagle or a wild beast has carried him off,’ suggested Clovis.

‘There aren’t eagles and wild beasts in Surrey’ said Mrs Momeby, but a tone of horror had crept into her voice. (p. 68)

This is a typical Clovis rejoinder – sharp, satirical and wickedly acerbic.

While the majority of these stories are witty and humorous, two or three are somewhat different in tone. Stories like The House of Fate, the rather poignant tale of a desolate wanderer who is mistaken for the master of a farm, a young man who disappeared some years earlier under a cloud of ill feeling; The Open Window, an eerie story which harks back to the tragic disappearance of a group of men precisely three years ago to the day; and The Music on the Hill, a rather macabre story which Max explores in his review. In many ways, they add variety to the collection, demonstrating Saki’s emotional range – he is a clearly writer with more than one string to his bow.

All in all, this is a first-rate collection of stories, one I’m delighted to have discovered.

Improper Stories is published by Daunt Books; personal copy.

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy