Tag Archives: Short Stories

Recent Reads – That Old County Music by Kevin Barry and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household   

In an effort to catch up with my review backlog, here are some brief notes on two fairly recent reads – both very highly recommended!

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry (2020)

A vivid collection of eleven short stories, many of which feature loners, outsiders or those who find themselves on the fringes of mainstream society. As with most collections, some pieces will inevitably resonate more strongly than others, but there are five standout stories here, worthy of the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with The Coast of Leitrim (previously published in The New Yorker), in which Seamus, a lonely, sensitive, thirty-five-year-old man, falls for Katherine, a young Polish woman who works in a local café. This is a gentle, meditative story, shot through with a yearning for love and the fear of its loss in the future.

What kind of a maniac could fall for the likes of me, he wondered. The question was unanswerable and terrifying. When she lay in his arms after they had made love, his breath caught jaggedly in his throat and he felt as if he might choke. To experience a feeling as deep as this raised only the spectre of losing it. (pp. 19–20)

In Roma Kid, one of my favourite stories in the collection, a nine-year-old girl runs away from the asylum park where her family is being housed. When she sprains her ankle in the woods, the girl is taken in by another outsider – a single man living off-the-grid in a trailer, fending for himself in the wilds of the countrywide. As the weeks and months go by, a tender friendship develops between these two individuals, highlighting the kindness of human nature. This is a beautiful, compassionate story that doesn’t play out as the reader might fear.

There is a wonderful seam of dark humour to be found in some of the best stories here, pieces such as Toronto and the State of Grace, which combines striking social comedy with an element of poignancy. In Toronto, a jaded publican is forced to listen to the tales of an eccentric elderly woman and her extrovert son as they drink their way through the nine spirits on display in the bar. If truth be told, the owner is dying to lock up, but his attempts to curtail their drinking are repeatedly ignored!

Who’s-Dead McCarthy is another darkly comic gem in which the death-obsessed Con McCarthy likes nothing more than a bit of gossip about a passing in the family.

Con McCarthy was our connoisseur of death. He was its most knowing expert, its deftest elaborator. There was no death too insignificant for his delectation. A 96-year-old poor dear in Thormondgate with the lungs papery as moths’ wings and the maplines of the years cracking her lips as she whispered her feeble last in the night – Con would have word of it by the breakfast, and he would be up and down the street, his sad recital perfecting as he went. (pp. 109-110)

This is a brilliantly observed story with a very fitting end, another piece that demonstrates the author’s skills with character and dialogue.

Finally, the title story is also worthy of a mention, not least for its memorable central character – Hannah, a pregnant seventeen-year-old waiting in a Transit van while her thirty-two-year-old boyfriend robs the nearby petrol station. Like many individuals we see here, Hannah’s life is in flux, caught between uncertainty and a gradual dawning of reality. Once again, it’s an excellent story, beautifully conveyed in Barry’s uncomplicated yet poetic prose. Definitely recommended!

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household (1939)

I’m going to keep this relatively brief, mostly because the less you know about the second half of this book before reading it the better. It’s a man-on-the-run thriller of the highest order – taut, gripping and pacy with an existential dimension to boot.

The unnamed ‘rogue male’ of the novel’s title is a trained killer who decides to launch an assassination attempt on a highly dangerous dictator. (While the leader and his country remain anonymous, the time period and European setting clearly point towards Hitler.) Just as the narrator is about to pull the trigger on the dictator, he is captured by the leader’s security team, tortured and then dispatched down a cliff to make his death seem accidental. Somehow the job is bungled and our narrator manages to survive, escaping with his life in the most challenging of circumstances.  

Drawing on his wits and extensive survival skills, the narrator makes it back to England where he finds himself being pursued by the dictator’s henchmen – clearly the matter of international borders poses little barrier to the tyrant’s intentions! Unfortunately, the narrator is unable to call on the British Government for protection as this would be tantamount to requesting an endorsement of his actions – something he knows the authorities will never do. (Interestingly, the true reasons behind our protagonist’s assassination attempt only become fully apparent as the story unfolds.) Moreover, the situation is further complicated when the man kills one of his pursuers to evade being captured, thereby involving the British police in the hunt.

The rest of the novel details the rogue male’s attempts to hide out in the midst of Dorset, a cat-and-mouse game between our protagonist and his main tracker, the brilliantly named Major Quive-Smith.

Household’s novel – which is rightly considered a classic of the genre – is presented as a first-person account, and the following passage, taken from the narrator’s initial escape, provides a good indication of the style.

I got out the map and checked my position. I was looking at a tributary which, after a course of thirty miles, ran into one of the main rivers of Europe. From this town, a provincial capital, the search for me would be directed, and to it the police, my would-be rescuers, presumably belonged. Nevertheless I had to go there. It was the centre of communications: road, river and railway. And since I could not walk I had to find some transport to carry me to the frontier. (pp. 16–17)

Other readers have compared this book to John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, both of which are very valid comparisons. However, the writer I am most reminded of is Jean-Patrick Manchette – particularly his excellent man-on-the-run noir, Three to Kill (1976), which Max has written about here. Either way, Rogue Male is a terrific book, fully deserving of its status as a classic. It’s also quite philosophical at times – more so perhaps than I’ve been able to convey in these brief notes.

That Old Country Music is published by Canongate, Rogue Male by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the Independent Alliance for a copy of the Barry.

Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988)

I have Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) to thank for introducing me to Laurie Colwin. (You can read more about the background to that intro in my review of Colwin’s 1982 excellent novel, Family Happiness, by clicking on the link.) Alongside fiction, Colwin also wrote about food – specifically, home-cooked food, the kinds of simple yet flavoursome dishes that any good cook needs to have in his or her repertoire.

First published in 1988, and reissued by Fig Tree in this lovely 2012 edition, Home Cooking weaves together Colwin’s recipes, anecdotes and sage words of advice on the joys of cooking and sharing food with friends. In short, it is a delight to read – warm, generous, and completely down-to-earth, just like Colwin herself, I would imagine. In some respects, reading this book feels like having your warmest, smartest, funniest friend over for dinner – someone with a willingness to share their culinary tricks and treats alongside their unmitigated disasters.

There are chapters here on Friday Night Supper, How to Disguise Vegetables and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People. All the recipes seem eminently achievable – tried and trusted versions of Colwin’s family favourites, including Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers, Orange Ambrosia and Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew (which can be pimped up accordingly once the basics have been mastered). Pot roasts and baked chicken feature heavily, as do eggplants (aubergines) and broccoli, two of Colwin’s favourite vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of her ways with orzo as there’s a packet languishing in my cupboard as we speak.

Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis—the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding—until tender. Chop and set aside.

Drain the orzo throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire. (pp. 85-86).

She’s not above sharing some of her kitchen nightmares, either – the culinary disasters that have lingered in her mind. After all, as Colwin generously admits herself, having just served crunchy pasta to her husband’s friends, ‘if all else fails, eat out’.

There’s also a particularly amusing chapter on ‘Repulsive Dinners’ recounting the horrors that Colwin has experienced elsewhere. In this passage, she recalls an invitation to supper in Connecticut where the ‘local markets were full of beautiful produce of all kinds.’ Unfortunately, none of these tempting ingredients found their way into the host’s meal. Instead, ‘an old-fashioned fish bake’ was produced – even those words themselves sounded ominous, as Colwin conveys.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish fish—no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion.

As the coup de grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices run out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce. (p. 153)

What I love most about this book is the way Colwin writes – hopefully you’ll get a flavour of her style from the passage I’ve quoted above.

In summary then, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of essays, recipes and reflections on the joys of simple yet delicious dishes. An ideal present for any food lover, especially the unpretentious ones!

Passion and Affect (1974)

I’ve also been reading some of Colwin’s short stories over the past few weeks, dipping in and out of her bittersweet collection Passion and Affect. Colwin writes beautifully about quiet, unshowy people, many of whom are drifting through life, searching for happiness or fulfilment, even if they can’t quite recognise it when they find it. While not necessarily outsiders, many of Colwin’s characters are somewhat odd or idiosyncratic, written with a kind of humanity that makes them seem entirely recognisable despite their inherent strangeness. Here we have stories of people falling in and out of love, not quite connecting through mismatched expectations, failing to compensate for their respective flaws and imperfections.

As one might expect with any collection of short stories, some pieces will resonate more strongly than others, so I’ll focus on a few of my favourites from the fourteen included here.

In The Water Rats (probably my favourite story), we meet Max Waltzer, a thoughtful, successful man who adores his wife and four children so much that his happiness threatens to overwhelm him. For Max, the fear of potential tragedy manifests itself in the form of water rats, recently sighted on the nearby shoreline.

In the beginning of the spring, geese flew in V formation. Max watched them from the bay window. He looked out over the water and saw the first of the small craft battling its way to an old mooring. On the weekends he liked to sit by the bay window and watch his part of the Sound. It soothed him, and it gave him a sense of propriety to see the latticework gazebo, firm on its slope. A family of barn swallows was building a nest in its thatched roof. (p. 49)

This is a beautifully written story in which a man must come to terms with his fear of loss – a worry that poses a more significant threat to his wellbeing than any hypothetical catastrophe.

In Children, Dogs and Desperate Men, a woman slips into a dalliance with a married man – a cartographer she meets at her cousin’s engagement party – even though she knows it’s unlikely to lead to anything lasting. As with many of Colwin’s characters, Elizabeth is somewhat fragile, viewing herself as ‘shaken and out of place’, still recovering from an earlier unhappy love affair. This touching, wryly humorous story ends on an unresolved note, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen in the future.

This dry (and frequently direct) style of humour runs through several of Colwin’s stories, perhaps most noticeably in The Big Plum, one of the best pieces in the collection. Harry, a supermarket manager, studying for a degree in art history, becomes fixated on Binnie Chester, a checkout girl who reminds him of Vermeer’s famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Harry studies Binnie closely, fantasising about her home life in ‘an old house of ruined elegance’ with her vaguely tragic relatives – perhaps a rakish father and a faded, abstracted grandmother. Somewhat inevitably, Harry’s dreams are punctured when he finally plucks up the courage to talk to Binnie out of hours, an exchange laced with humour and poignancy as the normality of her life is ultimately revealed.

I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a hint of Colwin’s skills in conveying character. Her descriptions are often memorable and distinctive, just like the individuals themselves.

Holly was impeccable: she had not opted for neatness, it had been thrust upon her by nature. She had simple, unadorned features, and thick straight hair that fell unalterably to her shoulders. Clothes on her looked somehow cleaner and more starched than they did on other people. (p. 89)

Passion and Affect is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.

Guilty Creatures, a Menagerie of Mysteries – Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and many more

It’s always a joy to receive one of the latest British Library Crime Classics releases through the post, and this clever anthology of short stories, Guilty Creatures – a Menagerie of Mysteries, is no exception to the rule. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.) Included here are fourteen vintage mysteries, each featuring an animal, bird or invertebrate of some description as an integral component in the case. As Martin Edwards notes in his introduction:

Animals play an extraordinarily wide variety of roles in crime stories. They may be victims, witnesses, even detectives. (p. 8)

Moreover, they can also provide – or indeed uncover – vital clues in the investigations, as illustrated by some of the best stories showcased here.

As ever with these anthologies, part of the joy of reading them comes from the mix of authors included, ranging from the well-known (Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Wallace) to the somewhat less familiar (Christianna Brand, Mary Fitt and Clifford Witting). Also of note is the seam of darkness running through this collection, with several of the stories channelling a rather sinister vibe not always associated with ‘cosy crime’ fiction from this era. It’s something that gives this anthology an interesting edge, very much in line with the predatory characteristics one might observe within the animal kingdom itself. On that ominous note, I’ll start with some of the gentler stories here and work my way up to the more ruthless end of the spectrum…

In Arthur Morrison’s The Case of Janissary – one of my favourites in the anthology – Janissary, a much-fancied horse, is the intended victim of a crime, destined to be ‘nobbled’ in advance of a key race to fix the outcome. The Redbury Stakes has attracted significant interest from the betting fraternity, with sizeable amounts of money riding on Janissary as the pre-race favourite. Needless to say, an attempt to sabotage the frontrunner is launched, only to culminate in a very interesting twist. This delightful story features Horace Dorrington, a Raffles-like scoundrel who combines investigation with crafty trickery in rather unexpected ways.

Mary Fitt’s The Man Who Shot Birds is another excellent story, a very clever puzzle involving a jackdaw, a valuable diamond star, a gold watch of sentimental value, and—of course—a man who shoots birds. This is my first encounter with Mary Fitt (aka the classical scholar Kathleen Freeman), but I’d be interested in reading more on the strength of this piece. A bird also features in F. Tennyson Jesse’s story, The Green Parrakeet, a sinister little tale in which the titular creature acts as a bit of a smokescreen for the true nature of a tragedy.

Headon Hill’s The Sapient Monkey is a lovely story involving a performing monkey, some banknotes and a case of false accusation – a charming little piece with a satisfying conclusion. Also very enjoyable is The Oracle of the Dog, one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories from the early 1920s. In this tale, the term ‘armchair detective’ is particularly apt, with the investigator solving a seemingly impossible murder from the comfort of his own home. It appears that Colonel Druce has been stabbed to death with a stiletto-like implement while sitting alone in his summer house. The fact that several other people could see the garden at the time makes the incident appear all the more mysterious. This is a story in which the behaviour of the victim’s dog is crucial to the resolution, with actual doggy-like traits trumping any suggestions of a sixth sense.

Cats feature prominently in Clifford Witting’s domestic mystery, Hanging by a Hair. There is a touch of Patricia Highsmith (in the vein of A Suspension of Mercy)about this story, in which Arthur Marstead is caught between his critical, self-centred wife, and his timid yet clingy lover, Violet.

He walked towards the house, a tall man in the middle thirties, with a premature stoop, untidy hair, eyes peering through horn-rimmed spectacles, and a general area is absent-minded anxiety. He stepped into the room, to find that his wife had summoned him to close the windows because Rufus has sneezed in his sleep.

On Rufus were lavished the love and care that he himself should have enjoyed. He disliked Rufus—disliked him above all other cats except one, which was Tiggles, Violet’s blue Persian. With Rufus the antagonism with mutual and Rufus held aloof, but Tiggles—like Violet—maddened him with cloying attentions. (pp. 227–228)

When Violet is found dead, murdered with a spanner, suspicion falls on Arthur as the chief suspect – however, as with the Chesterton, the animals provide the solution here, leaving vital clues for the investigators to discover in this partly sinister, partly humorous domestic entanglement.

There are touches of humour and darkness too in Christianna Brand’s excellent story The Hornet’s Nest, in which Harold Caxton, a horrible little man, snuffs it during the wedding breakfast for his second marriage. 

Harold Caxton waited for no one. He gave a last loud trumpeting of his nose, stuffed away his handkerchief, picked up the spoon beside him and somewhat ostentatiously looked to see if it was clean, plunged spoon and fork into the peach, spinning in its syrup and scooping off a large chunk he slithered it into his mouth, stiffened—stared about him with a wild surmise—gave one gurgling roar of mingled rage and pain, turned first white, then purple, then an even more terrifying dingy dark red, and pitched forward across the table with his face in his plate. (p. 289)

This is a very clever mystery in which the finger of suspicion falls on each of the four main suspects with a link to Caxton: his new wife, Elizabeth; his adult son from his first marriage, Theo; his adult stepson, Bill; and his physician, Dr Ross. While hornets do not actually appear in this story, they are highly significant as a metaphor in this meticulously planned murder, providing inspiration for the solution to this case.

Finally, the most malevolent stories in the collection seem to feature invertebrates and reptiles. In The Man Who Hated Earthworms, a man must take drastic action to prevent a worldwide catastrophe, while in H. C. Bailey’s The Yellow Slugs, the titular creature provides a vital clue to some sinister goings-on. Perhaps the most brutal of all, though, is Garnett Radcliffe’s Pit of Screams, probably best avoided by anyone with an aversion to snakes!

In summary then, this is another fascinating anthology from the British Library Crime Classics series — definitely worth considering for its diversity of twisty stories, nicely linked together by an interesting theme.

The Shooting Gallery by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

First published in English in 1988, The Shooting Gallery is a collection of eight short stories by the acclaimed Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima (daughter of Osamu Dazai, also a renowned author). When viewed as a whole, the book is very much of piece with Tsushima’s other work, much of which is concerned with single mothers – modern women who defy the conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood, a stance which tends to place them on the margins of traditional society. (You can read my thoughts about Tsushima’s excellent novellas Territory of Light and Child of Fortune by clicking on the relevant links.)

In several of these stories, the central protagonist is a somewhat isolated mother, typically divorced or separated from her previous partner, often struggling to balance her desire for freedom with the responsibilities of raising children with little or no support. While Tsushima’s prose appears clear on the surface, there is a subtlety to it, a sense of mystery or elusiveness that adds to its beauty.

In the titular story (from 1975), a single mother – previously abandoned by her husband – takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside for a day out. During the train journey, the two boys, aged seven and four, spend most of their time squabbling with one another in their impatience to get to the sea. (It is abundantly clear from the start that the boys are something of a handful.) Further frustration ensues once the family arrive at their destination. It is April, very early in the season, and several of the local attractions are closed. The beach itself is deserted, smelly and littered with rubbish – hardly the picturesque setting the children were promised. As the mother searches for somewhere suitable to have lunch, the boys become increasingly cranky, highlighting the challenges of single motherhood and the constraints this situation imposes. 

Tsushima makes excellent use of imagery in this story, ranging from the variety of associations suggested by the sea to the mother’s daydream of a winged dragon – the latter acting as a metaphor for freedom and a means of escape.

During The Shooting Gallery, the mother reflects on the fact that her children don’t really know their father; in essence, the man is so ‘absent’ from the family that as far as the boys are concerned, he may as well not exist. This feeling of dissociation or abandonment is also very present in The Silent Traders (1982), in which a divorced mother arranges an opportunity for her two children to see their father after a long absence. In essence, she considers it important that the children interact with him as a living, breathing individual – not just a static photo that never moves or speaks. The father, however, has clearly moved on, his new family being the sole focus of attention…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought in confusion, unable to say a word about the children. He was indeed their father, but not a father who watched over them. As far as he was concerned the only children he had were the two borne by his wife. Agreeing to see mine was simply a favour on his part, for which I could only be grateful. (p. 43)

One of Tsushima’s strengths is her ability to capture the differences in emotional investment on the part of women vs men. While the mother sees the importance of her children spending time with their father, her ex-husband does not.

Other stories in the collection explore slightly different aspects of marriage and/or motherhood. In Missing (1973)one of my favourite narratives in the book a mother waits anxiously for her teenage daughter to return, fearful that she might have left for good. As she tries to distract herself from the situation, the mother reflects on her sister, whose seventh-anniversary service was earlier in the day. It’s a story of wasted talents, missed opportunities and a career put on hold – all for the sake of ‘three grubby children’, the sister’s only notable achievement while still alive.

The Chrysanthemum Beetle (1983) is a very interesting story, a tale of male jealously and the consequences of this insecurity for the women caught in its slipstream. As the narrative unfolds, Izumi, a young woman who lives with her widowed mother, realises she is in a three-way relationship with her lover, Takashi, and another woman, Nobuko. In this scene, Nobuko relates her theory about Takashi to Izumi when the two women meet for dinner…

He goes through life dreading his own jealous nature, so that as soon as he finds a relationship that take some of the pressure off – as I did, and you did – he can’t rest until he’s satisfied himself that the other person is jealous too. And while he’s at it he seems to lose his own balance. It’s both a disappointment and a relief when it turns out that we are jealous, and then he starts brooding over what makes us that way, which leads him into very deep water… (p. 71)

It’s a fascinating piece that blends contemporary scenarios with elements from classic Japanese myths and ghost stories, all woven together in the author’s lucid yet layered prose.  

Finally, in A Sensitive Season (1974) – the only story in the collection to focus on a male protagonist – a young boy, Yutaka, finds himself in the care of his Aunt Natchan, having being abandoned by his wayward mother.

One day Yutaka’s mother had turned up very pregnant; she has shut herself away at home for three years and then quite suddenly ran off leaving the child behind. It was then that his aunt had reluctantly given up her job at a kindergarten to become private nanny to Yukata and his grandfather, but perhaps what had worked at the kindergarten didn’t work at home, for she had soon dropped the cheerful expression she used to wear for the children and became nervy and silent instead. (pp. 6–7) 

When Natchan develops an interest in a man working at the adjacent house, Yutaka worries that he will be abandoned once again – left to fend for himself and his invalid grandfather. It’s another story that explores the balance between familial obligations and personal independence – made all the more interesting in this instance due to the way Natchan is painted, i.e. as a rather unsympathetic character who views her dependents as annoying.

In summary, The Shooting Gallery is an excellent collection of stories, very much in line with Tsushima’s other (better-known) work. While the female protagonists are shaded and nuanced, frequently reflecting on their relationships, both past and present, the men tend to be more ambivalent in their emotions, often placing themselves at a distance from their ex-wives and children. There is a haunting, melancholy tone to some of these pieces that augments the feeling of alienation. A beautiful collection of stories about the challenges of single motherhood and the desire for a degree of liberty, this is a book that deserves to be back in print.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation #WITMonth – more info here.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese (tr. Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee)

First published in Italian in 1953, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a brilliant collection of short stories and reportage by the critically acclaimed writer Anna Maria Ortese. As a whole, the collection conveys a vivid portrait of post-war Naples in all its vitality, devastation and squalor – a place that remains resilient despite being torn apart by war. Sharp contrasts are everywhere Ortese’s writing, juxtaposing the city’s ugliness with its beauty, the desperation of extreme poverty with the indifference of the bourgeoisie, the reality of the situation with the subjectivity of our imagination. It’s a powerful and evocative read, enhanced considerably by Ortese’s wonderfully expressive style.

Evening begins with three fictional pieces – the first of which is A Pair of Eyeglasses, an excellent story in which a young girl, Eugenia, is eagerly anticipating her first pair of glasses. Eugenia lives with her parents, spinster aunt and two younger siblings in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. Partly in return for their basement-level accommodation, Eugenia’s parents are at the beck and call of the Marchesa, the rather demanding and thoughtless owner of the dwelling, who thinks nothing of doling out casual put-downs at various opportunities.

Ortese skilfully captures the inherent spirit of the neighbourhood, complete with a multitude of vivid sights and animated sounds.

When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. (p. 22)

Nevertheless, it’s an environment that Eugenia is unable to see clearly, particularly as she is virtually blind. Only with the aid of glasses is the true horror of the environment revealed – an experience Eugenia finds utterly overwhelming, shattering her previous perceptions of life in the bustling courtyard.

…the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. (p. 33)

The contrast here is particularly striking, pitting Eugenia’s blurred, almost rose-tinted impressions of her surroundings against the brutal reality of the situation. It’s a memorable story, effectively setting the tone for the collection as a whole.

In Family Interior – probably my favourite of the three stories – we meet Anastasia Finizio, a successful shop owner, who has worked tirelessly to support her mother, spinster aunt and younger siblings for several years. At thirty-nine, Anastasia is vaguely aware that her life is slipping by – a realisation brought into sharp relief when she hears news of the return of Antonio, a man from her youth. This development rekindles dormant feelings within Anastasia, prompting her to dream of the kind of life she might have had – and may still to be to have? – with Antonio.

What Ortese does so well here is to convey the power dynamics within the family, particularly in relation to Anastasia’s mother who sees the danger in any disruption to the present equilibrium.

It seemed to Signora Finizio, sometimes that Anastasia wasted time in futile things, but she didn’t dare to protest openly, for it appeared to her that the sort of sleep in which her daughter was sunk, and which allowed them all to live and expand peacefully, might at any moment, for a trifle, break. She had no liking for Anastasia (her beloved was Anna), but she valued her energy and, with It, her docility, that practical spirit joined to such resigned coldness. (p. 48)

In truth, Signora Finizio is a selfish woman, one who takes a perverse satisfaction in hurting Anastasia – effectively humiliating her to keep everything in check. It’s an excellent story, subtle and nuanced in its exploration of Anastasia’s position, highlighting the tension between familial responsibility and personal freedom.

After The Gold of Forcella – a vividly-realised story of a pawnshop in the heart of Naples – the focus shifts to non-fiction pieces, essentially conveyed in a reportage style. The Involuntary City is the most powerful essay in this section – a candid account of Ortese’s visits to Granili III and IV, a sprawling shelter for those made homeless by the devastation of war. Initially intended to be a temporary solution for the displaced and dispossessed, The Granili is ‘home’ to some 3,000 individuals (approximately 570 families), with an average of three families per individual room. The conditions are horrific – damp, cramped and filthy – particularly on the lower floors of the building where the most impoverished residents are housed.

In a few homes someone was cooking: smoke, which had the density of a blue body, escaped from some doors, yellow flames could be glimpsed inside, the black faces of people squatting, holding a bowl on their knees. In other rooms, instead, everything was motionless, as if life had become petrified; men still in bed turned under grey blankets, women were absorbed in combing their hair, in the enchanted slow motion of those who do not know what will be, afterward, the other occupation of their day. The entire ground floor, and the first floor to which we were ascending, were in these conditions of depressed inertia. (pp. 86-87)

There is a sense of desperation about the existence in these squalid, smoke-ridden conditions, almost as if the building’s lower echelons are representative of a race’s demise following the destructive impact of war.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a form of class structure has developed within the Granili, separating the displaced into different social strata, largely according to status. Some of those on the higher floors have jobs – consequently their days are structured, and this sense of order tends to be reflected in the immediate surroundings. In short, these individuals have adapted to reduced circumstances without giving up their sense of decorum. Nevertheless, there is a widespread understanding of the precarious nature of this situation. On occasions a random stroke of bad luck, such as an illness or the loss of a job, will force someone on the third floor to give up their lodgings and descend to a lower one, usually to move in with another family member. For the most part, these people are destined to remain in their relegated positions, despite harbouring hopes of regaining their previous status.

In the final section of the book, Ortese recounts a series of journeys to visit former colleagues from Sud, the avant-garde cultural magazine where she worked in the late ‘40s. There is a melancholy, elegiac tone running through these pieces, a sense of alienation from those who have become indifferent or embittered.

In summary, Evening Descends Upon the Hills is a fascinating collection that blurs the margins between fiction and reportage to paint a striking vision of post-war Naples, vividly capturing the city’s resilience in the face of poverty, suffering and corruption. The attention to detail is meticulous – as is the level of emotional insight, particularly about women’s lives and family dynamics.

The collection comes with an excellent introduction by the translators which outlines the reactions to Ortese’s candid (and sometimes brutal) vision of Naples following the book’s initial publication – the author was subsequently banned from the city for several years. Also included is the preface from the 1994 reissue, in which Ortese reflects on how her disoriented state of mind may have influenced her picture of post-war Naples, as captured in the original book.

In short, this is very highly recommended indeed – particularly for fans of Elena Ferrante, who has cited Ortese as a key influence on her work. My thanks to Pushkin Press and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, 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 some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

Barbara Pym – Unfinished Novels and Short Stories

A couple of months ago, I wrote about Civil to Strangers, an early novel by Barbara Pym – written in 1936 but published posthumously in 1987. My copy of the book also contains three novellas/unfinished novels (edited down by Pym’s biographer, Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this post, my aim is to give you a flavour of the unfinished novels and stories – the former run to around 40-50pp each while the stories clock in at 10-15pp per piece. Even though some of these pieces are minor works, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Unfinished Novels/Novellas

My favourite of these pieces is Home Front Novel, a story set in a small-town community at the beginning of WW2. This is textbook Pym, a delightfully comic sketch of individuals adjusting to the arrival of a group of evacuees for the duration of the war. As is often the case with Pym, the vicarage is the centre of the community, with the ladies diligently practising their Red Cross demonstrations.

Spinster cousins Agnes and Connie share a house together and will be taking in four evacuees. While Connie is meek and subservient, Agnes is bossy and controlling, traits that soon become apparent as the cousins consider the practicalities of the situation.

“It will mean a lot of extra work, having evacuees here,” said Agnes. I think I’ll tell Dawks tomorrow to dig up the front lawn.”

“Whatever for?” asked Connie.

“To plant vegetables, of course. Now, let me see. The vicarage has a very big lawn and there is that herbaceous border at the Wyatts’.”

By the time they had finished their work in the kitchen, Agnes had already, in imagination, commandeered all the gardens in the village and planted them with vegetables. “Oh God,” prayed Connie that night, “don’t let there be a war.” But at the back of her mind was the thought that a war might be rather exciting. It would certainly make a difference to the days that were so monotonously the same. (pp. 225–226)

What a pity Pym didn’t develop this novel further as the opening is full of potential. There are hints of love blossoming between the charming spinster, Beatrice Wyatt, and the local curate, Michael Randolph. Moreover, the cast of idiosyncratic supporting characters points to some trouble ahead.

So Very Sweet sees Pym dipping her toes into spy story territory, as Cassandra Swan – an excellent woman in typical Pym fashion – follows a trail of clues left by her friend, Harriet, a brilliant individual who works for the Foreign Office. The plot is quite absurd, but no less enjoyable for that – a little bit like the Hitchcock film, The Lady Vanishes (1938), with upstanding ladies practising their bandaging skills for good measure.

Perhaps the slightest of these unfinished works is Gervase and Flora, a story of unrequited love set in Finland amongst the British ex-pat community. There are hints of something autobiographical in this story of Flora Palfrey, a young woman who has been love with Gervase Harringay, an English lecturer from Oxford, for the past few years.

Flora often wondered what would become of her. She had been in love with Gervase for so long that she could not imagine a life in which he had no part. Nor, on the other hand, could she imagine a life in which he returned her love. That would somehow spoil the picture she had made of herself. It was an interesting picture, very dear to her, and she could not bear the idea of it being spoilt. Noble, faithful, long-suffering, although not without its funny side, it was like something out of Tchekov, she thought. (p. 192)

Short Stories

I’ve already written about Goodbye Balkan Capital as featured in Wave Me Goodbye – a marvellous anthology of short stories about WW2, all by women writers. However, this is such a great piece that it warrants another mention here. It’s quintessential Pym, a beautifully observed tale of two spinster sisters sharing a house together, the protagonists reminiscent of the Bede sisters from Some Tame Gazelle, another early work.

As Laura listens to news of the war on the radio, she is reminded of a night spent in the company of Crispin, a dashing young man who captivated her heart at a ball back in her youth. While Laura has not seen Crispin since that event, she has followed his successful career in the Diplomatic Service over the years, his most recent role having taken him to the Balkans.

As reports of the Germans’ advance across Europe come in, Laura envisages Crispin fleeing his office at the British Legation, possibly travelling to Russia and beyond via the Trans-Siberian Express. The excitement Laura experiences vicariously by way of these imaginings contrasts sharply with the mundane realities of her life in the village. Nevertheless, her role as a volunteer in the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) unit makes Laura feel useful and valued and – much to the annoyance of her sister, Janet, always the more formidable of the two. In fact, the sight of Laura in her new tin hat proves almost too much for Janet to bear…

Janet seemed rather annoyed when she saw it. It made Laura look quite important and professional. “I should think it must be very heavy,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll leave the thermos of tea for you, though I suppose you’ll get some there.”

“Well, expect me when you see me, dear,” said Laura, her voice trembling a little with excitement. Going out like this and not knowing when she would return always made her feel rather grand, almost noble, as if she were setting out on a secret and dangerous mission. The tin hat made a difference, too. One felt much more splendid in a tin hat. It was almost a uniform. (p. 349)

There are some lovely scenes of ordinary folk pulling together here – disparate individuals brought together by the camaraderie of ARP duty, sharing tins of biscuits and slabs of chocolate with their night-time cups of tea.

So, Some Tempestuous Morn is another favourite, a charming story of matchmaking and romantic introductions featuring three characters from Pym’s late ‘30s novel, Crampton Hodnet. The individuals in question are the formidable Miss Doggett, her paid companion, Jessie Morrow, and her nineteen-year-old niece, Anthea. Miss Doggett is on the lookout for a suitable young man for Anthea, however previous candidates have fallen somewhat short of the mark.

Anthea would marry, naturally, but it must be a suitable marriage. There had already been one or two disappointments, not only in Anthea’s failure to impress the young men, but in the young men themselves. Canon Bogle’s son had turned out to be a grubby young man in corduroy trousers; Lady Dancy’s nephew was too small and apparently interested in nothing but archaeology. That had been a great disappointment; even Miss Doggett could see that there was little future in dry bones and fragments of pottery. (p. 334)

In The Christmas Visit, two friends who were at Oxford together meet up again after thirty years, having taken radically different career paths in the interim. It is a story of uneasy reunions, the awkwardness of people with little in common coming together to spend Christmas under the same roof.

The collection is rounded off with Finding a Voice, a transcript of a radio talk given by Pym in 1978, in which she reflects on the development of her literary style. It’s a fitting end to a delightful collection of works.

My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website).

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? I loved working my way through this short volume, reading one or two pieces on a daily basis.

A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness.

There is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye. Almost one hundred years on, the writing still feels fresh and vivid, focusing as it does on the inner lives of Mansfield’s characters. These pieces, many of which end rather suddenly, pinpoint the significance of small moments in our existence, highlighting the profound in day-to-day life.

Grief, loneliness, isolation and longing are all common themes, possibly reflecting Mansfield’s state of mind at the time of writing. (Having received a diagnosis of tuberculosis, Mansfield must have known by the early 1920s that her time was strictly limited.) Unanticipated thoughts or realisations punctuate several of the pieces – for example, Miss Brill, in which a lonely woman’s fragile sense of self-esteem is shattered when she overhears a thoughtless conversation.

There are some wonderful examples of Mansfield’s style here, passages of literary impressionism that capture the rhythms of life and the natural world.

Ah– Aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – A faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such silence that it seemed someone was listening. (p. 1)

Precision plays a significant role, too – not a word out of place or misjudged along the way.

Alongside the modernist prose style, there is a willingness on the part of Mansfield to explore progressive (and potentially controversial) views in her fiction. In At the Bay, one of the standout stories in this remarkable collection, a mother expresses a lack of love for her children. And yet, despite this potentially shocking revelation, Mansfield portrays Linda (the protagonist), in an insightful, compassionate way, enabling the reader to sympathise with her position – to some degree at least.

But the trouble was – here Linda felt almost inclined to laugh, though Heaven knows it was no laughing matter – she saw her Stanley so seldom. There were glimpses, moments, breathing spaces of calm, but all the rest of the time it was like living in a house that couldn’t be cured of the habit of catching on fire, on a ship that got wrecked every day. And it was always Stanley who was in the thick of the danger. Her whole time was spent in rescuing him, and restoring him, and calming him down, and listening to his story. And what was left of her time was spent in the dread of having children. (p. 18–19)

It’s a story that flits from character to character, allowing us to see certain situations from more than one point of view – including that of Linda’s husband, Stanley.

Other vignettes focus on a young girl’s experiences of her first ball, with the mix of nervous and excitement this entails; a teacher’s rapidly changing emotions as her forthcoming marriage appears to be in jeopardy; and a patriarch’s weariness and isolation as he ponders the cumulative effects of providing for his family.

These are marvellous stories, beautifully expressed. I adored them.

The Garden Party is published by Penguin Books, personal copy.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

The British writer and journalist Penelope Mortimer is perhaps best known for her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s breakdown precipitated by the strains of a fractured marriage. Mortimer also drew on her own experiences for Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, a collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relations, many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the surface veneer of domestic life. First published in 1960, this excellent collection has recently been reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books – my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

In The Skylight, one of the standout stories in this volume, a mother and her five-year-old son are travelling to France for a family holiday in a remote part of the countryside. The weather is stiflingly hot, conditions that make for a tiring journey, leaving the woman and her child anxious to arrive at their destination (a house they have rented in advance). On arrival, they find the property all locked up with the owners nowhere in sight. The only potential point of access is an open skylight in the roof, too small for the woman to squeeze through but just large enough for the child. So, with no other option at her disposal, the woman proceeds to instruct her son on what to do once she drops him through the skylight. (Luckily, there is a ladder to hand, making it possible for them to reach the open window.)

This is a brilliantly paced story, shot through with a mounting sense of tension as we await the narrative’s denouement. In a tale strongly reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, much of the horror comes from the imagination – our own visions of what might be unfolding inside the house once the young boy has entered through the skylight. Sound plays a particularly important role here; for instance, the torturous sound of a dripping tap serves to accentuate the intense feeling of unease…

In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath. (p. 21)

Children appear in many of the stories, partly as a way for Mortimer to highlight some of the challenges of motherhood. Interestingly though, it is often the knock-on responses of the fathers to their offspring that precipitate crises for Mortimer’s female protagonists, rather than the actions of the children themselves. In the titular tale – another highlight of the collection – we gain an insight into the lives of Madge and William Browning, two writers who live with their daughter, seven-year-old Bessie. Also living in the house are Melissa (15) and Rachel (9), Madge’s daughters from a previous marriage. The story opens with what appears to be a commonplace domestic setting – a family waking up at home on an ordinary Saturday morning. However, the apparent mundanity of the scene is swiftly undercut by Mortimer’s pin-sharp observations on the underlying tensions at play.

Madge never went down to breakfast. She refused, out of a strong feeling of self-preservation, to acknowledge its existence. William’s temper was unreliable in the early morning, and particularly on Saturdays, with Rachel and Bessie lolling about in a holocaust of cornflakes and burnt toast, the German maid reading letters from home while the coffee boiled dry and the neighbouring children, small, ugly and savage, standing in a row outside the french windows watching him eat, a curiosity which they observed once a week, swarming over the low walls dressed for holiday in feathers, jeans and their mother’s broken jewellery. (pp. 34–35)

Rachel in particular in a source of irritation for William, prompting an eruption of violence as the story progresses. While Madge tries to hold it together for the family, desperately clinging to a false picture of domestic stability she has constructed for herself, William succeeds in undermining her efforts, forcing a confrontation between the couple – this despite Madge’s desire to shield the children from witnessing their marital conflicts. It’s an excellent story, full of telling insights into the presumptions William has made about Madge’s role as primary caregiver within the family.

In other pieces – Such a Super Evening being a case in point – Mortimer demonstrates her eye for sharp humour. The story is narrated by a modest married woman, the wife of a barrister, who is delighted by the prospect of having the infamous Mathiesons over to dinner. Philip and Felicity Mathieson – again, both writers – are a kind of literary power couple, often called upon to comment on various topical issues from childcare (they have eight children) to household management to cultural affairs. They appear to have it all – the perfect marriage, successful careers, remarkable children – in short, the whole shebang.

As the dinner party progresses, the scene becomes increasingly surreal, particularly as the Mathiesons begin to talk so openly about their lives. Gradually, throughout the evening, the ‘perfect couple’ reveal themselves to be money-grabbing, self-centred individuals, dismissive of many of the values they appear to project in public. It’s a deliciously amusing story, relayed in a gossipy style that works perfectly with the satirical subject matter. Another standout piece in this subversive collection.

Miriam’s earrings were quite still, petrified with shock. I cleared away and brought in the Tocinos del Cielo. I’m very proud of these, and perfectly happy to explain how I make them. However, no one seemed to want to know. They were all beginning to look as though they were at a funeral, except for Philip. He was talking about getting away from it all. (p. 67)

One of things that strikes me about this collection is how relevant these stories feel, sixty years after their initial publication. In addition to the topics outlined above, other themes include infidelity, the oppression of women, mental illness, unwanted pregnancies and the use of children as leverage in a marriage.

In the haunting story Little Miss Perkins, a mother – recovering in hospital following the birth of her baby – is sharing a room with a young woman at risk of miscarriage, their beds separated by a flimsy curtain. At first, the narrator assumes her roommate is traumatised at the thought of potentially losing her baby; but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this mother-to-be has other, more pressing priorities on her mind. Once again, there is a touch of Daphne du Maurier about this tale which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1960. It’s another story that blends flashes of dark humour with the underlying emotions of horror and tragedy. I couldn’t help but highlight this passage about the young woman’s doctor, complete with his slick appearance and patronising manner.

Her doctor, a Mr Macauley, was better dressed, slightly more suntanned than mine; otherwise, like all successful obstetricians, he looked like a one-time matinée idol who, in early middle-age, had struck oil. (p. 120)

In summary, this is a sharply devastating collection of stories – pitch-perfect vignettes that subvert the supposed idylls of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these tales, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment… Very highly recommended indeed.