Tag Archives: Short Stories

Winter in the Air by Sylvia Townsend Warner  

It was the evocative title that first drew me to Winter in the Air, a shimmering collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, recently published by Faber & Faber. Many of these pieces first appeared in the New Yorker between the late 1930s and mid-‘50s, and it’s fascinating to read them together here. When viewed as a whole, the collection paints a compelling picture of middle-class life in the mid-20th century, replete with individuals buffeted by the fallout of war with all its attendant losses. Here is a world of abandoned wives and widowed mothers, of bitterness and melancholy, all portrayed in Warner’s wonderfully lucid prose. There’s also something rather subversive about this collection, too – a sinister tone that inhabits some of these pieces, giving these stories a macabre or surreal edge.

As ever with short story collections, I’m not planning to cover every story in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price alone.

The collection starts strongly with the titular story, in which a woman has returned to London after several years in the country. I love how Warner illustrates the difference between these two environments through her descriptions of charladies, neatly capturing the gossipy nature of village life.

A London charwoman does her work, takes her money and goes away, sterile as the wind of the desert. She does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the greying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village, with news of what’s going on between those two at Pond House. (pp. 1–2)

As the woman reflects on recent events, it becomes clear that she has been supplanted by her husband’s lover, forcing the move to London, which she handles with equanimity. Just like the furniture she must now fit into her city flat, the woman knows she will soon settle into this new arrangement. The silence of the room will not be intimidating for long…

A broken marriage also plays a central role in Hee-Haw!, another excellent story with a chilly, melancholy air. In this tale, a woman returns to the village where she once lived with her former husband, Ludovick, a successful painter who has since passed away. Their marriage was a turbulent one, ultimately lasting for three tumultuous years.  

In a whisk, in a glancing blow of recognition, she had seen it again, the place where she had lived for three years—in turmoil, in rapture, in drudgery, in fury, in the bitter patience of disillusionment; there, at the close of those three years, she had her last quarrel with Ludovick and walked for the last time down the steep path. (p. 13)

The woman is staying at the village pub where some of Ludovick’s work is on display – and during this visit, a local man starts telling her about the artist, not realising they used to be married to one another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain details about Ludovick’s colourful love life are revealed, accentuating the woman’s resentment of her philandering former husband.

In Idenborough – one of my favourite stories in the collection – an impromptu visit to a village near Oxford prompts memories of a long-forgotten love affair, a fleeting relationship that lasted little more than a day. The central protagonist here is Amabel, a middle-aged woman who is now married to her second husband, Winter (her first, Thomas, having died during the war). Again, this is an excellent story, beautifully told.

…and [Amabal] remembered how, earlier in the day, Winter had praised her for her sincerity. But now it was too late. Deceit must accumulate on deceit, and with her second husband she would visit Idenborough, where she had cuckolded her first one. (p. 197)

Other, more surprising relationships also feature here. In Evan – another highlight – Warner gives us a chance encounter on a train, the kind of set-up that feels ripe with possibility. A teenage schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood gets chatting with the only other traveller in his compartment, a woman returning from a spell in the country. Despite their lives being poles apart, an easy conversation quickly develops between the pair as the journey progresses. However, when the woman must change trains to catch her connection, something passes between the two of them – a spark of attraction charged with tension as the time comes to part. It’s a lovely story – surprising, evocative and lightly sketched – tinged with a touch of longing for the relationship to develop.

Nestling among these quietly compelling stories are sharper, more sinister pieces, shot through with an air of menace or a whiff of eccentricity. In A Priestess of Delphi, the brutal murder of a woman raises the threat of blackmail for a former lover from the victim’s distant past. As the protagonist – a writer named Charlton – embarks on a journey to recover his old love letters to the murdered woman, Warner gives her story a rather unsettling edge.  

Tossing and swaying, the newly leaved ash trees in the hedgerows looked hysterically green. It seemed a landscape fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and, for that matter, murders. (p. 50)

If anything, Under New Management is even more unnerving, a subtle tale of malevolence in a seedy post-war setting. The story revolves around Miss St John, a longstanding resident at the Peacock Hotel. When the establishment changes hands, Miss St John is not entirely happy with certain developments. The new owners, Mr and Mrs Fry, start encroaching on the spinster’s territory, shunting her into a small sitting room to give the seasonal guests the full run of the lounge. Moreover, Miss St John soon finds herself at the mercy of the Frys’ adult son, Dennis, who proceeds to regale her with horrifying accounts of brutal crimes from the newspapers. Nevertheless, Warner’s protagonist is made of stern stuff, a quality that ultimately sees her through. This superb story finishes with a suitably ironic twist while also showcasing the author’s flair for darkly comic character descriptions – Mr and Mrs Fry being a prime case in point!

Mrs Fry was of the type known as bright. She walked briskly, she smiled often, her head was always bound up in a bright-patterned scarf, and from under the scarf jutted two careful tinted curls whose position never varied by a hair’s-breadth from day to day (pp. 93–94)

Striking pen portraits also feature prominently in A Funeral at Clovie, as a man drives his cousin’s widow to her estranged husband’s funeral. The woman in question is Veronica, who is dressed ‘as though for a religious Ascot’, complete with a white cloak and sombrero, all topped off with ‘a sky-blue enamel cross’.   

No wonder she’s dressed up like a bride for her husband’s funeral, thought Archie. The whited sepulchre! Probably the next one will be some Bishop or other, and she’ll marry him in pink. (p. 209)

Other highlights include Shadwell, a brilliant story of a loyal servant who finds an ingenious way to supplement her meagre income, and Absolom My Son, an excellent story of a writer who discovers his work has been plagiarised by another author (now deceased). This is another tale with a surprising twist or two as it moves towards the end.  

So, all in all, this excellent collection of stories ticks several boxes for me, from the evocative mid-20th century settings to Warner’s beautiful, evocative prose. There’s some lovely descriptive writing here, especially in the author’s portrayal of the English landscape, the trees heavy with autumn foliage and inlets of green moss, ‘hot velvet in the sun, cold as ermine in the shade’. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Warner’s command of the contrasts in tone, the flashes of malevolence and malice lurking in these tales of seemingly gentile ladies and the respectable middle classes. A terrific collection of pieces with much to recommend it – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

My favourites from a year in reading, 2022 – the books that almost made it

This December, I found it harder than usual to settle on a manageable number of titles for my ‘Books of the Year’ lists. In truth, there were very few disappointments amongst the 100+ books I read in 2022, partly because I tend to gravitate towards the mid-20th century for my reading. These modern classics have stood the test of time for a reason; in other words, they’re VERY GOOD!

As I looked back at this year’s reading, I found myself earmarking another eight books that didn’t quite make it into my final selections. All these books are brilliant in their own individual ways, and any of them could have easily found their way onto my ‘best of’ lists had I been compiling them on a different day. So, just in case you need yet another list of suggestions for your toppling TBR piles, here are books that almost made it. Enjoy!

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1969)

Back in October 2021, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise on their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings. However, Andrew Male and Laura Varnam’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…The less said about the plot the better; just cut to the book itself.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (1931, (tr. Geoff Wilkes, 2013)

Irmgard Keun’s novellas always have something interesting to offer, and this striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne did not disappoint. Right from the very start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi (and the competing demands on her future direction) as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for the free-spirited Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly engaging book by one of my favourite women writers in translation.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels – stories that combine darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. The setting for this one is a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s, a time of great social change. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing room. The story follows the progress of two of these women, Berti and Evelyn, as they try to survive. Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. An underrated Comyns that deserves to be better known.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia was Barker’s only novel. It’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions, from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text. Andy Miller (of Backlisted fame) described it as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that rings true. There’s also a dash of Barbara Comyns here – Barker’s prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with the macabre and the surreal. A kaleidoscopic, jewel-like novel with a noticable poignant touch.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, painting an evocative portrait of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. Over the course of the novella (which is written as a series of short vignettes), we follow Maud Martha through childhood in Chicago’s South Side, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable here, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovered gem courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint that always delivers the goods.

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (1970, tr. Howard Curtis, 2021)

Another wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair. Set in Rome in the late 1960s, the novel follows Leo, a footloose writer, as he drifts around the city from one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. One evening, he meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye; their meeting marks the beginning of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. Calligarich has given us a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair here. These flawed, damaged individuals seem unable to connect with one another, ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

The Cost of Living; Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant (1951-1971)

A precise, perceptive collection of short stories by the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant. The very best of these pieces 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. Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. Several of her 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, isolated wives and bewildered husbands, smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. A top-notch collection of stories, beautifully expressed. 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2007, tr. Frances Riddle, 2021)

Shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, Elena Knows is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various aspects of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability. While that description might make it sound rather heavy, Piñeiro’s novel is anything but; it’s a hugely compelling read, full of depth and complexity. When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs, so she embarks on an investigation of her own with shocking results…

So, that’s it from me until 2023. Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, with very best wishes for the reading year ahead!

Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker – a post for the #1929Club

As some of you may know, it’s Simon and Karen’s #1929Club this week, a celebration of books originally published in 1929 – you can find out more about it here. So, for my contribution to the event, I’ve chosen Dorothy Parker’s Big Blonde, an excellent story that traces the sad and unfulfilling life of an ageing good-time girl as she slides into alcoholism and depression. This striking tale highlights how the society of the day made certain assumptions about women based on their appearance and situation; and while things have undoubtedly changed significantly since then, Parker’s story still has a degree of resonance with certain attitudes today.

Central to the story is Hazel Morse, a large, fair-haired woman ‘of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly’. Hazel is in her twenties when we first meet her, working as a model in a wholesale dress business. Through her work, she has the opportunity to meet various men, many of whom find her attractive and are keen to take her out.

Right from the very start, we see how Hazel is defined by her appearance, especially her blonde hair. Men tend to assume she is a good-time girl, fun and easy-going in company and an all-round ‘good sport’. At first, Hazel responds well to this attention, enjoying her popularity and the various benefits this confers. 

Her job was not onerous, and she met numbers of men and spent numbers of evenings with them, laughing at their jokes and telling them she loved their neckties. Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men liked a good sport. (p. 13-14)

Nevertheless, the situation changes somewhat when she marries Herbie Morse, a ‘quick, attractive man’ with a fondness for drink. With her thirties looming on the horizon, Hazel is keen to settle down to a life of cosy domesticity. Herbie, however, has other ideas, choosing instead to stay out drinking till late at night. Consequently, the couple often argue when Herbie gets home…

She fought him furiously. A terrific domesticity had come upon her, and she would bite and scratch to guard it. She wanted what she called ‘a nice home’. She wanted a sober, tender husband, prompt at dinner, punctual at work. She wanted sweet, comforting evenings. The idea of intimacy with other men was terrible to her; the thought that Herbie might be seeking entertainment in other women set her frantic. (p. 18)

In truth, Herbie still sees Hazel as a specific personality type – a carefree, easy-going blonde who enjoys a bit of fun – rather than an individual with needs and desires of her own. (Significantly, Hazel is referred to as Mrs Morse throughout the story, characterising her identity through her role as a wife.) In particular, Herbie fails to see that Hazel craves some love and affection, especially when she’s feeling low. As such, his tolerance is tested by this change in his wife’s behaviour – as far as Herbie is concerned, Hazel is no longer the good-time girl he signed up for in their marriage, but he makes no attempt to understand her feelings or situation.

With the arguments between the couple becoming increasingly violent, Hazel turns to alcohol herself, drinking during the day as a way of blurring the loneliness and depression – a situation that ultimately ends in the breakdown of the couple’s marriage.

By this point in the story, Hazel is also seeing Ed, a married man she met through her neighbour and daytime drinking partner, Mrs Martin – a forty-something blonde who hosts parties for good-time ‘boys’ in her flat. (In truth, Mrs Martin is essentially Hazel in ten years’ time unless something more hopeful happens to set her life on a different trajectory.)

While Hazel is relatively happy to be Ed’s mistress for a while, their relationship comes to an end when Ed moves to Florida for work. A succession of unsatisfying dalliances swiftly follows as Hazel slips further into depression.  

In her haze, she never recalled how men entered her life and left it. There were no surprises. She had no thrill at their advent, nor woe at their departure. (p. 31)

Throughout the story, Parker highlights how the emptiness of Hazel’s life is defined by the roles ‘available’ to her as a (once-)attractive blonde – roles dictated by societal expectations of her gender and physical appearance. As such, she is expected to be (in turn): a fun-loving, good-time single girl who enjoys going out; an easy-going, sociable wife, tolerant of her husband’s failings; and a lively, cheerful mistress who keeps her troubles under wraps. Each of these idealised images contrasts starkly with Hazel’s inner life, which remains largely unfulfilled.

As the years pass by, Hazel sees the long, slow parade of miserable days stretching out ahead of her – the steady succession of men, just like the ones that have come and gone, and the interminable evenings of being ‘a good sport’, largely for their benefit. With a wave of misery sweeping over her, it feels like she is being crushed between ‘great, smooth stones’ as the horror of her situation sets in

Big Blonde is a quietly devastating story with a distinct air of tragedy. While the reader hopes for a brighter future for Hazel, they fear that she is trapped in a vicious circle with little agency to break free…

Big Blonde is included in the Penguin Modern The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker; personal copy. It’s also available in this lovely Penguin Little Clothbound Classic edition

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Back at the beginning of June, I wrote about Tove Ditlevsen’s 1952 short story collection, The Umbrella, which forms the first part of the recent Penguin reissue, The Trouble with Happiness. The book as a whole takes its name from the second collection included here – a volume of eleven stories, published in Danish in 1963. Ditlevsen experienced severe depression, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and several broken marriages during her life – she divorced four times. As such, many of these influences, alongside those of her austere childhood in working-class Copenhagen, have made their way into her books, these stories included.

The titular piece feels particularly autobiographical in nature, a quality augmented by its personal, almost confessional style. Here we see a talented, seventeen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood, desperate to spread her wings and escape the constraints of her family. The girl’s mother is severe and judgemental, while the father remains largely absent or asleep, adding to the fractured nature of life in the family’s cramped apartment. As an account, it’s shot through with a palpable sense of sadness – a melancholy mood that resurfaces now and again in the protagonist’s thoughts several years down the line.

But sometimes – when someone has left me, or I discover inadvertently in the eyes of my children a glimpse of cold observation, of merciless, unsurmountable distance, I take out my brother’s pretty little sewing case and slowly open the mother-of-pearl inlaid lid. Fight for all you hold dear, plays the worn old music maker, and an unnamed sadness swells inside my mind, because they are all dead or disappeared, and my brother and I no longer communicate. (p. 184)

Ditlevsen has an innate ability to convey the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation that women sometimes feel, especially when their marriages break down. In Perpetuation, one of my favourites in the collection, Edith finds that history is repeating itself when her husband, an academic in his mid-forties, has an affair with a much younger woman. Consequently, Edith cannot help but reflect on her father’s earlier desertion of his family under similar circumstances. Will Edith’s children blame her for the collapse of the marriage? How long will it be before their father forgets them?

What if she told her children the truth? The truth about a father whose love for a woman and tenderness for three children was diminished to a little prick in his conscience when once in a while – because it had to happen – on a street, in a trolley, or on a train, he saw a child who resembled one of them? A little pain that diminished with every embrace, every passionate night, and which in the end disappeared completely in the terrible power radiating from the body of a young, beautiful woman. (pp. 168–169)

The danger posed by youth is also a factor in The Little Shoes, another brilliantly-observed piece in this piercing collection of stories. When Helene employs Hanne, a rather self-important, insolent twenty-two-year-old girl, as a housekeeper, she begins to regret her decision, especially when the family’s stability is put at risk. With her air of working-class resentment and self-righteousness, Hanne might just be fooling around with Helene’s fifteen-year-old son, adding to a pattern of behaviour that Helene finds infuriating.

Helene had to fight back the impulse to fire her on the spot. She stood there until the girl slowly got up, wearing a shameless smile that radiated the consciousness of the sexual superior superiority of idiotic youth.

Helene took it as the kind of smile you give to an older, discarded fellow female, and she was infuriated. (p. 144–145)

Ditlevsen spares little in her withering depiction of men in these stories, many of whom are at best absent or neglectful and at worst cruel or deceitful.

In A Fine Business, a young couple, imminently expecting a child, are looking for a new house which they plan to buy with a recent inheritance. After several fruitless viewings, their estate agent alights on an ideal property, armed with the knowledge that the owner – a vulnerable mother – needs to sell quickly following the breakdown of her marriage. It’s a situation the male buyer is all too keen to exploit, working in partnership with the estate agent to secure a reduced price – an action that reveals a mercenary side to the buyer’s character. Only his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, can see the injustice of this scenario, empathising with the downtrodden seller, particularly given her own condition.

There is such a sad, hopeless atmosphere in this house, bereft as it is of much of its former furniture. And yet, this excellent story reveals so much about the characters, particularly through Ditlevsen’s insights into Grete’s private thoughts.

Why has he looked that way at the little stain on the ceiling? It was the same way he looked at the woman and a little girl, almost as if there were two defects in the house that could drive down the price. He probably wasn’t going to buy this house either. And when they got home, he would act as if he had made the most ingenious deal in his life. (p. 128)

Also rather troubling is the father’s behaviour in The Knife, an arresting story in which a mentally disturbed man feels constrained by his wife and son.

They existed like shadows inside him, thought foetuses he couldn’t get rid of, products of a weakness in him which he tried with all his might to overcome. (p. 96)

Other highlights include Anxiety, a terrifying tale of a woman cowed into submission by her intolerant husband – a newspaper copy editor who works nights and hates having his sleep disturbed during the day. Consequently, this woman is afraid to move around in her own home in case she makes a noise. Moreover, any occasional visits to her sister also come with their own problems, especially if she stays out for too long – who knows what her husband might need while she is away…

Two Women is also worthy of a mention – a beautifully observed story of a restless, depressed woman who fails to empathise with her hairdresser, despite experiencing similar anxieties and concerns. In truth, Britta has come to the beauty parlour for an escape from her own troubles, not to be dragged down by those of another.

So, in summary, a superb collection of stories, beautifully expressed in a spare, emotionally truthful style, perfectly capturing the underlying sadness and loneliness therein. Here we have stories of fractured minds, lonely, isolated women, marginalised or abandoned in their marriages by careless or cruel men. Supportive friends or family members seem few and far between, adding to the unhappiness that surrounds these protagonists. But as ever with Ditlevsen, the writing is brilliant, a factor that helps balance some of the heartbreak we find within. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for lovers of interiority in fiction.

Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Sayaka Murata’s novella Convenience Store Woman, a wonderfully offbeat story that posed some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. There’s more of that strangeness here in Life Ceremony, a collection of thirteen short stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. It’s an excellent collection, raising provocative questions about why certain things are deemed acceptable while others are not.

By exploring our societal constructs, Murata exposes the absurdities and hypocrisies of various conventional beliefs, destabilising our perceptions of what is ‘normal’ vs ‘weird’ or taboo. Many of these stories are set either in the near future or in an alternate reality where societal practices have changed, shifting the boundaries of which behaviours are considered off-limits.

As with most short story collections, some pieces resonate more strongly than others, so my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and underlying themes. While the longer pieces are particularly effective, even Murata’s short sketches have something interesting to offer – the germ or an idea or a lasting impression to consider.

In the opening story, a First-Rate Material, we enter a world in which human bones, skin and other body parts are routinely repurposed into useful objects following a person’s death. These recycled items are not only considered acceptable but highly desirable, frequently attracting high price tags due to their quality and beauty. The young lovers in the story have wildly different perceptions of this practice, prompting us to question who is behaving strangely here – the young woman who longs to fill her new home with furniture made from bones, or the young man who baulks at the idea of these furnishings and wedding rings made of teeth?

Murata’s story asks us to question the man’s objections to this form of recycling. Why shouldn’t human bodies be repurposed in this way following death? Surely that’s less wasteful than being cremated, thereby allowing parts of the body to have an extended ‘life’, converting them into items to be admired and enjoyed by others? Taboo-busting ideas as far as our current society is concerned, but not in the world that the author portrays here.

The titular tale, Life Ceremony, takes some of these ideas even further, challenging our perceptions of the nature of human flesh. In the environment depicted here, funerals have been replaced by life ceremonies, where the deceased’s flesh is cooked and made into a meal for their family and friends to feast on – a joyous celebration of life as opposed to the solemn mourning of a death. As an additional flourish, guests are encouraged to find an insemination partner to have sex with in a public place – thereby continuing the circle of life, should the conception prove successful. Attitudes towards sex have changed over time due to a population decline, and procreation is now seen as a form of social justice to support the ongoing survival of the human race.

While the custom of eating human flesh has become deeply ingrained in this society, the narrator – a woman in her mid-thirties – can recall a time in her childhood when such practices were forbidden, highlighting the shifts in attitudes and the boundaries of ‘normality’. There is a sense that humans are becoming more like animals in this rather affecting story – a darkly humorous tale tinged with a dash of poignancy. Another thought-provoking piece designed to challenge our preconceptions and impressions of what feels ‘right’ vs taboo.

Our perceptions of sex are also pertinent to A Clean Marriage, another provocative story that plays with conventional norms. In essence, this piece explores the idea that sex for pleasure and sex for procreation are two completely different concerns, to the point where a person might seek separate partners or ‘processes’ to fulfil these contrasting aims. As with other stories in this collection, there is the germ of a rational concept here which Murata cleverly develops through her slightly skewed scenario. Another excellent tale that derives humour from life’s absurdities (as depicted here).

Food is another recurring theme or motif, sometimes acting as a cultural signifier as in A Magnificent Spread – one of the less controversial pieces in the collection. In this humorous story, a newly-engaged couple host a lunch for their respective families to meet for the first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each member of the extended family comes with their own deep-seated preferences for food, ranging from an obsession with ‘Happy Future’ functional health foods to a fondness for insects and grubs foraged from the natural world. In essence, the story illustrates the importance of respecting other people’s cultures and values rather than forcing them to accept our own. Naturally, our attitudes towards different foods are a key part of these cultural codes, as Murata’s highly amusing story neatly demonstrates.

Other stories explore unconventional family units, highlighting the value participants gain from these relationships despite a lack of understanding from other, more ‘conventional’ sectors of society. Two’s Family is an excellent example of this – a beautiful, touching story of two women, Yoshiko and Kikue, who had previously decided to live together for life if they remained unattached by the age of thirty. Now in their seventies, the two women have enjoyed living together in a non-sexual relationship for forty years, raising three daughters conceived through artificial insemination from a sperm bank. While Yoshiko is quite guarded at heart, Kikue is more outgoing, having enjoyed several lovers over the years. But with Kikue now undergoing treatment for cancer, Yoshiko wonders what will become of her should Kikue die. Like a marriage of sorts, life with Kikue is all Yoshiko has ever known. This very affecting story works brilliantly, especially as a contrast to some of the book’s other, more controversial pieces.

Finally, I must mention the penultimate story, Hatchling, because it’s probably my pick of the bunch. Narrated by a Haruka, a young woman planning her wedding, Hatchling explores the benefits and dangers of code-switching – the practice of flexing our personality to fit in with different social groups, depending on the ‘tone’ each group requires. Since junior high, Haruka has become so used to adapting her behaviour that she no longer knows who she really is. Maybe she doesn’t even have a genuinepersonality of her own, only a series of five or six ‘characters’ dictated by each particular situation or environment. For instance, she is the straight-A student ‘Prez’ with her junior high classmates, the goofball ‘Peabrain’ for her high school friends and the girly ‘Princess’ with her film club at Uni. The real problem comes when Haruki contemplates her forthcoming wedding. Which ‘character’ should she adopt there, given the mix of friends attending? And perhaps more importantly, which personality would her fiancé prefer? Maybe this depends on the character he will be playing on the day, and how will she know in advance?

This is an excellent piece, full of cleverly-constructed scenes that Murata plays out in a highly amusing manner. In short, the story highlights the dangers of adopting a carefully-curated persona in front of others, especially if we lose sight of our inherent values and behaviours.

So, in summary, a truly excellent collection of stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. What Murata does so well here is to skew our world just enough to destabilise our preconceived notions of the boundaries of acceptability. She challenges us to look at the world afresh by exploring the validity of an alternate, less constrained view.

Life Ceremony is published by Granta Books; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing an early proof copy.

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime – a themed anthology   

Over the past few years, the publishing arm of the British Library has been carving out a very successful niche for itself, reissuing a whole host of treasures from the Golden Age of crime fiction. The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is part of their occasional series of anthologies, bringing together a range of short stories connected to Scotland. Some of the mysteries are by Scottish writers, while others are set in the country itself, ranging from city-based tales, such as the titular piece, to mysteries rooted in more remote areas such as the Highlands and Islands.

As ever with these anthologies, some entries are stronger than others; and while the quality of stories feels more variable here than in some of the BL’s other themed anthologies, the best stories are very good indeed. Hopefully this review will give you a flavour of what to expect, should you decide to read the book.

The titular story, written by Baroness Orczy, is one of the more compelling mysteries in the collection – a case involving the proposed transfer of a significant fortune, some property, and a particularly splendid set of diamond jewels. There’s also a whiff of disapproval about a forthcoming wedding, a match frowned upon by certain sectors of Edinburgh society.

“In Edinburgh society comments were loud and various upon the forthcoming marriage, and, on the whole, these comments were far from complimentary to the families concerned. I do not think that the Scotch are a particularly sentimental race, but there was such obvious buying, selling, and bargaining about this marriage that Scottish chivalry rose in revolt at the thought.” (p. 48)

This is a very absorbing murder mystery with a surprise or two up its sleeve, a most enjoyable and intriguing read.

While Josephine Tey’s Madame Ville d’Aubier is one of the shortest pieces in the collection, it certainly leaves a strong impression on the reader. In this enigmatic tale, a couple decide to get away from their home in Paris for the day, ultimately ending up in a sleepy village in the country. Tey excels at conveying the deeply unsettling atmosphere of her setting, a rather unwelcoming baker’s shop where they are met with a frosty reception.

And all at once I wanted to get out of the place. Something I did not understand was happening here. The air was thick with it, bulged with it as air does before an explosion. We were being crushed and pressed down by the potency of someone’s misery, and it was as if at any moment that pressure of misery might burst the thing that held it. I wanted to get away before something happened. (p. 160)

Michael Innes’ The Fishermen is one of those good old-fashioned ‘is-it-suicide-or-could-it-be-murder?’ mysteries featuring a small number of potential suspects, each with a possible motive for the deadly deed. Set during a fishing trip in the Scottish Highlands, this is an ingenious mystery with a theatrical flavour as the victim is a playwright. Another enjoyable tale and a worthy addition to the collection. 

Of the stories from lesser-known writers, J. Storer Clouston’s A Medical Crime is well worth highlighting – a neat little mystery involving a series of burglaries, each including the theft of a medically-related item. Carrington – Clouston’s shrewd private investigator – devises a clever way of identifying the perpetrator, complete with a little twist at the end for an extra flourish.

Augustus Muir’s The Body of Sir Henry is a particularly creepy story set on a dark, rainy night in a remote part of the Scottish Borders. There are some wonderfully atmospheric passages here, even if the tale’s outcome proves relatively easy to guess.

A woman sat there, with dark furs round her face, and I’ll never forget her expression. It was one of unspeakable horror. Beside her, a man lay huddled stiffly back on the cushions. Right up to his chin he was covered with a travelling rug. He was elderly and had thick grey hair. His skin was chalk white, and his eyes were wide open and staring straight upward. The light didn’t seem to dazzle them. It would have dazzled mine if I had hadn’t had my back to it. But one quick glimpse at him was enough to tell me the important thing. The man was dead. (p. 145)

P. M. Hubbard’s The Running of the Deer is an excellent story, one of my favourites in the collection. Set on a county estate in the Scottish Highlands, this is a story of jealousy, desire and a regulated deer cull that ends in tragedy – not just for the hinds but for a hunt supervisor too. This gripping mystery has a suitably ambiguous ending, raising crucial questions about the incident concerned.

The Scottish Highlands also feature in H. H. Bashford’s The Man on Ben Na Garve, another standout entry in this anthology. When Wentworth witnesses a seemingly innocent meeting between two men in a remote part of the Scottish countryside, he thinks little of it. A few months later, however, he chances upon a report of a man’s death in that very spot on the day in question – possibly related to the incident he observed, but possibly not. Should he tell the police what he saw that day or keep quiet? A dilemma that leaves Wentworth pondering what to do for the best. This is an excellent story, complete with a couple of unexpected twists at the end – I enjoyed this one a lot!

Also worthy of a mention is The Alibi Man by the Glaswegian writer Bill Knox, an utterly terrifying tale of revenge, kidnapping and dodgy alibis. Moreover, it all feels frighteningly plausible and contemporary, despite its 1960s setting. A very chilling little piece.   

For readers who prefer lighter mysteries, John Ferguson’s The White Line should fit the bill – a hugely enjoyable story of two rivals vying for a lady’s hand. With its cruise ship setting, this delightful tale offers much in the way of glamour, gossip and romance. Another winner.  

Less successful for me were the following stories, including some by relatively well-known crime writers. G. K. Chesterton’s The Honour of Israel Gow, which I didn’t particularly care for despite its spooky Castle setting, and Footsteps by Anthony Wynne, another mystery with a creepy atmosphere and promising premise, only for it to stumble with an overly complex plot. Cyril Hare’s forgettable Thursday’s Child and Margot Bennet’s rather slight The Case of the Frugal Cake could easily be skipped, while the style of Jennie Melville’s Hand in Glove didn’t particularly appeal.

So, while this collection is perhaps more uneven in quality than some of the BL’s other themed anthologies, the ten or so most successful stories are very good indeed, making it worth dipping into for the highlights alone. Moreover, these anthologies are a great way of sampling a wide range of vintage crime writers to see which styles appeal. There’s quite a variety of approaches here, so while some stories will hit their marks, others may not – which is all part of the fun, I guess!

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Like many readers, I was gripped by Tove Ditlevsen’s arresting Copenhagen Trilogy when Penguin reissued it in 2019. Beautifully written in a candid, piercingly stark style, this autofictional series touches on key experiences from the author’s life, encompassing depression, troubled relationships, pregnancies (both wanted and unwanted) and drug addiction. During her career, Ditlevsen found an outlet in creative expression, producing some thirty books, spanning poetry, autofiction, novels and short stories – two volumes of which have been brought together here in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness.

In this post, I’m covering the stories in the first part of the book – originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952. These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity.

While some of the women in Ditlevsen’s stories are actively seeking an escape from their abusive husbands or the mundanity of a domestic existence, others have cause to question their sense of happiness, suddenly realising that they have been living a lie. In My Wife Doesn’t Dance, one of my favourites in this collection, a woman has been lulled into a false sense of security by her husband’s apparent acceptance of a physical limitation – a childhood paralysis that left her with a limp. It is only when she overhears him talking to someone on the phone that she realises the true nature of his duplicity – it’s as if someone has opened a door, exposing her to ‘an invisible, […] icy cold wind’ of betrayal.

He has no idea, she told herself. He doesn’t have any idea what I’m going through. And suddenly she perceived him as a complete stranger, a person she just happened coincidentally to be in the room with, and she was able to feel disconnected from him, from her love for him, her solidarity with him, and she decided again from her profound loneliness to ask who had called… (p. 32)

There is deceit of another kind in His Mother, a particularly creepy story in which Asger, a young man in his late twenties, pays a visit to his elderly mother with his new girlfriend in tow. As the mother shows the girlfriend some old family photographs, a striking resemblance is revealed, calling into question the true nature of Asger’s relationship to his Aunt Agnes – a woman who experienced a complete mental breakdown and suffered terribly during her life.

The writing is terrific here, fill of vivid imagery that adds to the unsettling feel. Asger’s mother is a morose, sardonic woman, someone who actively sniffs out others’ misfortunes and nurses them as her own; and as Asger’s girlfriend acclimatises herself to this oppressive environment, something of the mother’s aura seems to penetrate her soul.

A reflection from the eyes across from her, so filled with misery, reached her own open and questioning gaze, and a speck of invisible dust settled on her features, as if for a moment she had merged with the silent horde of photographs which spent their shadowy lives here on the furniture and the windowsills, where no flowers seemed to thrive. (p. 39)

Ditlevsen writes brilliantly from a child’s point of view, showing us how children often understand more than we realise, especially where family relationships and tensions are involved. In A Nice Boy, a seven-year-old has to adjust to a change in family dynamics when his adoptive parents have a baby of their own. This is an excellent story – very sad but exquisitely observed, especially in its depiction of the boy’s evident anxieties.

In Evening, a young girl finds herself caught between her biological parents, both of whom have remarried following the breakdown of their relationship. In truth, the girl wishes they could get back together, a desire that becomes apparent as we access her inner world.

Children are a focus too in One Morning…, a very affecting story of the break-up of a household, a family split in two by the wife’s affair with her lover. Consequently, the couple’s children are separated from one another – the girl moving out with her father while the boy stays behind with his mother. How does a five-year-old see this? asks Ditlevsen at one point. How long before she feels betrayed? By focusing on the fractured lives of one family, Ditlevsen encourages us to see the wider societal implications of broken relationships, highlighting the universal in the personal as she mines her characters’ lives.  

And beyond him [the father]: millions of miserable children, tons of loyal housekeepers and an incurable army of lovers, abandoned husbands, disloyal husbands, betrayed and flighty women, all kinds of people, all kinds of lives, and all equally lonely. (p. 57)

It’s a point she also makes very capably in Life’s Persistence, a story of a young woman seeking an illegal abortion. There are resonances with Annie Ernaux’s Happening in this one, highlighting the societal shame of unwanted pregnancy (and the challenges of securing a termination), particularly when the woman must deal with the risks alone.

Behind each of these women was the shadow of a man: a tired husband who toiled for a throng of children, and whose income couldn’t bear the strain of another child; a disloyal chap with pomaded hair who was already a thing of the past, an ephemeral, hasty tryst that had little to do with love; a student who was loved but too young, who was now pacing outside on the sidewalk, teetering between hope and fear; a carefree superficial guy who had ‘found an address‘ and bought a way out of the predicament he had gotten himself into; or one who had moved away from the city and left his difficult burden here like a piece of forgotten furniture; at any rate a man, a trap, a careless costly experience, maybe the first one – (pp. 68–69)

What Ditlevsen does so well in this collection is to convey the anxieties, sadness and pain that many women and children experience at the hands of their families. Her characters have rich inner lives, irrespective of the restrictions placed on them by society and those closer to home. The writing is superb throughout, demonstrating the author’s skills with language and a flair for one-liners with a cutting, melancholy note.

Suddenly his mother was on her like a cold draft. (p. 37)

They share children between them as if they were furniture, she thought… (p. 53)

She had placed her life’s great despair outside the door, and only when she left home did the sorrowful black cape wind back around her. (p. 29)

This is a tremendous collection of stories to read and revisit, one of the very best I’ve read in recent years. (I’m also planning to cover Book 2, The Trouble with Happiness in the future, maybe in a week or two.)

The Umbrella forms the first part of The Trouble with Happiness, published by Penguin Classics in 2022; personal copy.

Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Tessa Hadley’s The Past, a beautifully-observed novel about four adult siblings coming together for a holiday at their old family home. It’s a character-driven book, full of subtle tensions and frustrations, demonstrating the author’s insight into family dynamics and human nature. There’s a similar degree of perceptiveness in Bad Dreams, an impressive collection of short stories, all with female protagonists at the heart.

Seven of the ten stories included here were first published in the New Yorker, and are probably still available to read online. Nevertheless, by experiencing them together in this volume, certain patterns begin to appear – common threads and themes, similar structural patterns or motifs – adding texture and depth.

While these stories are rooted in the everyday, Hadley seems particularly interested in what happens when the mundanity of life is interrupted – typically by a new experience or a chance encounter with the potential to disrupt.

In An Abduction – one of the most memorable stories in the collection – Jane, a bored fifteen-year-old girl, home from boarding school for the summer holidays, accepts a lift from three unfamiliar boys in a sports car. Older and more experienced than Jane, the boys are living the high life in a large Surrey house, dabbling with drink and drugs while their parents are away. What follows isn’t quite the horror story the reader might be expecting given the set-up. Still, it’s unsettling nonetheless, culminating in a coda that adds another layer to the narrative.

Experience is another story in this vein, with the protagonist crossing a line into an intriguing new world. When Laura needs a new place to live following the breakdown of her marriage, a friend hooks her up with Hana, a sophisticated, glamorous woman with a spacious house in London. Hana wants someone to look after her home while she spends time in the US, so Laura moves in rent-free to caretake in Hana’s absence. Having settled into the house, Laura begins to step into Hana’s shoes – eating her food, reading her secret diaries, even wearing her clothes now and again.

I had thought that I would forget about Hana once she was out of the house, but moving around inside the shapes of her life, I found myself more powerfully impressed by her than I had been when she was present. The wardrobes full of her clothes stood in for her: velvet trousers and brocade jackets, an evening dress of pleated chiffon with a sequinned bodice – everything padded and sculpted, each outfit a performance in itself. (p. 90)

When Hana’s on/off lover, Julian, calls at the house to pick up some stuff, the visit offers Laura the opportunity to go deeper into Hana’s life. Laura begins to fantasise about a liaison with Julian, a chance to experience something more thrilling than the tame relationship she experienced with her husband. It’s an excellent story with several possibilities for the ending – but Hadley pitches it just right, resisting the temptation for too much spectacle or drama.

There’s a chance encounter of a different kind in Under the Sign of the Moon, another excellent story despite its somewhat uninspiring title! In this piece, Greta, a middle-aged married woman recovering from an illness, travels by train to Liverpool to visit her daughter, Kate. While Greta would prefer to read her book during the journey, the young man sitting opposite her is desperate to talk. After a while, Greta relents, and the pair strike up a conversation, culminating in them sharing a coffee at the station while Greta waits for Kate to arrive. There’s something sad and lonely about this man with his quaint, polite manner and dated clothes – compounded perhaps by his mother’s recent death.

As the two travellers part ways, the man hurriedly issues an invitation for Greta to meet him again later in the week, stating a specific time and place for the rendezvous. Greta declines to reply at the time, but when the day in question duly arrives, she surprises herself by following through, with rather unexpected results! Once again, this is another story with multiple possibilities for development. I won’t spoil things by saying how the potential meeting turns out, but it’s an interesting one for sure.

Other stories showcase Hadley’s skills at viewing situations from a child’s point of view – how strange and unknowable the world can seem when we’re only nine or ten. In One Saturday Morning, ten-year-old Carrie is alone in the house when Dom, a friend of her parents, calls with some bad news about his wife. Hadley perfectly captures the emotions children experience when the mood shifts – a longing for the normality of life to return when sadness disrupts events.

He was set apart, just as his wife had been set apart – except that it was worse with Dom, because he persisted, discomforting in all his living bulk, putting himself in the way of Carrie’s thoughts when she tried to be rid of him. She longed to hear the door shut behind him and for the dinner-party preparations to be resumed, however belatedly – for the whole ordinary process of living to start into motion again, downstairs in the kitchen. (p. 79)

The titular story, Bad Dreams – one of the highlights in the collection – explores a domestic scenario from two different perspectives. Firstly, we see what happens when a young girl wakes at night after dreaming about her favourite story; then we cut to the girl’s mother when she is disturbed later the same night. In both instances, the characters walk around the house, their movements and actions revealing much about the family members within – their habits and preoccupations, their vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s a terrific story, relatively simple on the surface yet full of insights and depth.

Other stories hinge on specific items being passed from one family member to another, providing a framework for exploring the characters’ lives and the fault lines that have developed over time. In Flight, a silk scarf passes from one estranged sister to another, a gift to help atone for past failings and absences. Silk Brocade features a similar motif – in this instance, a sumptuous length of silk is earmarked for a wedding dress until tragedy intervenes.

There’s also a brilliant story about an old man who wishes to leave his house to his carer, Marina, much to her embarrassment. The relationship between these two individuals is beautifully drawn, complete with moments of tenderness and frustration as the man’s life draws to a close. Possibly my favourite piece in the collection, the meaning of the story’s title — The Stain — becomes clear as elements from the past begin to emerge.

In summary then, Bad Dreams is an excellent of stories, elegantly conveyed. While most are set in contemporary times, a few pieces reach back to the 1950s and ‘60s (or occasionally even earlier), boding well for Hadley’s latest novel, Free Love, with its late ‘60s setting. 

Bad Dreams is published by Vintage; personal copy.

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother – a loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled, but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near-complete access to her thoughts and emotions. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

Back in October, the Belfast-born writer Lucy Caldwell won the BBC National Short Story Award with All the People Were Mean and Bad, a story of motherhood, chance encounters and the randomness of life. It’s a superb piece – probably the standout in Caldwell’s remarkable collection of stories, Intimacies, published by Faber earlier this year – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

All eleven stories in Intimacies are concerned with motherhood, mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, while a few focus on pregnancy and mothers to be. Consequently, the collection has a feeling of interconnectedness, a sense of synergy or cumulative effect as the reader moves from one piece to the next.

Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true.

Some of the most memorable stories rest on ‘what if’ or ‘what might have been’ moments, opening up the possibility of multiple outcomes for these characters – glimpses perhaps of alternative futures, some of which seem exciting, while others appear terrifying or weighed down by guilt.

In Like This, a busy mother, with a toddler and baby in tow, stops at a café for a brief respite. When the toddler wants to use the toilet – too large for the baby buggy to squeeze into – a friendly lady at a nearby table offers to watch the young woman’s baby. While the mother hurries her toddler along in the cubicle, the foolishness of her actions hits hard. How could she have left the most ‘helpless, precious thing’ she owns with a complete stranger, albeit another mother? Of course, this other woman said she has children of her own; but even so, what sort of mother would take the risk?

When the young woman emerges from the toilet, she is relieved to see that the buggy is still there; the stranger and the baby, however, are nowhere to be seen. In the minutes that follow, Caldwell’s protagonist begins a panic-stricken search for her child as the horror of a future blighted by tragedy plays out in her mind…

The fear and devastation of loss are also detectable in The Children, a fascinating story where a breastfeeding mother finds a lump in her breast. It could be nothing; but then again, it could be something – it’s so hard to tell. As such, we follow the young mother as the lump is investigated, with Caldwell skilfully switching between her protagonist’s medical appointments and work-related preoccupations as she awaits the results. The young mother is researching a story on the social reformer and author Caroline Norton, who found herself trapped in an abusive marriage and assailed by traumatic dreams. Reading Norton’s letters, the protagonist is reminded of her own anxiety dreams and how much she stands to lose, should the lump turn out to be cancer.

Since they were born, I’ve dreamed of losing my babies too. I dream that I’ve left my daughter in a Left Luggage unit and there are hundreds of dully gleaming lockers and I don’t have a key. […] I am dying, and I’m scared, and they tell me to keep calm and hold the hands that reach out for me, and I do, and feel myself pulled from my body. A moment’s relief, then the agony of realising I will never hold my children again. (p. 92)

Fears of a different kind assail the protagonist in Mayday, in which a female student is using some pills procured on the internet to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. (The story is set in Northern Ireland where accessible termination services are still to be commissioned following the legalisation of abortion in October 2019.) As she waits for the medication to work, the young woman experiences a mix of terror, sadness and relief – an overriding belief that she is making the right decision at this point in her life, despite the inherent risks.

She waits for the guilt to start, the regret, but it doesn’t. What does she feel? She tests out emotions. Scared, yes. Definitely scared. She’s deleted her browsing history seventeen, eighteen times. But they have ways of finding these things out, and somewhere, etched onto the Internet, is her name, her address, her PayPal account: what she did. When, where and how. She, or anyone who helps her, could be jailed for life. So, scared. (pp. 19–20)

In interviews, Caldwell has described her interest in writing about liminal or ‘in-between spaces’ (e.g. cars, airports and planes), where ‘time seems to stop, or is elsewhere for a while’, where alternative outcomes or different life paths open up, albeit momentarily. This is particularly true of the prize-winning story, All the People Were Mean and Bad, in which a young mother is on a night flight from Vancouver to London – the journey home from her cousin’s funeral. She is accompanied by her daughter – a toddler too young to have her own seat but too old to sit comfortably on her mother’s lap. The story’s title comes from a book about Noah’s Ark, which the mother hates but reads to her daughter, giving in to the child’s need to be occupied during the flight.

As the night unfolds, the mother gets chatting to the man in the adjacent seat, a fifty-six-year-old divorcee with children of his own – now fully grown. The man is kind and helpful, sympathetic to the young mother’s situation, travelling on her own with a restless child in need of comfort and distraction.   

This beautifully crafted story explores the gaps between who we are now and who we thought we would become, say ten or twenty ago. How our lives invariably turn out to be quite different from the futures we once imagined, often without clearly defined plans or conscious decisions on our part.

How time as a measure is, for a while, entirely meaningless, in this time out of time, and how distance is too, and about the distances we travel, between where we come from and where we end up, between who we thought we were and who we turn out to be. (pp. 126–127)

You have Riedel wine glasses and Dartington Crystal champagne flutes yourself now, and Japanese knives and a proper knife-sharpener, and sometimes, even peonies in vases, or at least in a vase. Where has it all come from? How have you graduated, almost without noticing, from novelty shot glasses and wine glasses nicked from pubs, thick-rimmed and engraved with measures, to this? […] And yet: you can’t shake the sense that it has all crept up on you without your wanting or asking for it, without your feeling any different than you did at twenty-nine, twenty-seven, or, yes, twenty-four (p. 124)

It’s also about the possibility of taking a different path in the future, how our lives can turn on the tiniest moments – split-second decisions that open up the possibility of excitement and desire alongside danger and guilt. There is a frisson of attraction between these two travellers, adding a degree of tension, a sense of will-they-or-won’t-they, to the scene when they should part.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this luminous collection of stories, but hopefully it’s given you a flavour of what to expect. Caldwell writes beautifully about motherhood, womanhood, life-changing moments and alternative futures. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.