Tag Archives: Short Stories

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Reads – Dorothy Whipple and Julian Maclaren-Ross

Brief thoughts on a couple of recent reads, both from the 20th century.

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple (1932)

Sometimes a big fat Persephone just does the trick, and Dorothy Whipple’s Greenbanks proved no exception to the rule. A thoroughly enjoyable family saga with clear feminist overtones, spanning the period from 1910 to the mid-1920s.

The novel focus on the Ashton family – in particular, the grandmother, Louisa (who lives at Greenbanks), and her granddaughter, Rachel. The Ashtons are comfortably off – upper middle class by society’s standards – and traditional in terms of behaviour. In a sense, much of the narrative traces Rachel’s childhood, highlighting her growing independence in light of her father’s archaic views. While Ambrose is willing to send his sons to public school, he sees no reason to honour the same commitment to Rachel, such is the folly of educating women for fear they might prove troublesome.

Ambrose intended to send his three sons to public schools; but it would be a severe strain on his resources and he was glad to be able to save on Rachel. She need not go away to school; nobody asked where a girl had been educated. And he did not believe in all this education for women; in fact, he considered knowledge definitely unbecoming to them. It destroyed their charm; they did not listen so well if they knew too much. (p. 137)

Most of the men in this novel are horrendous, from the dictatorial Ambrose (Rachel’s father) to the philandering Robert (Louisa’s husband) to the weak-willed Mr Northcote (the local Vicar) – I could go on. By contrast, Whipple’s women are more considered creatures, increasingly aware that they must forge their own paths in life in spite of the men who surround them. There are hints too of the differences between the generations, each demonstrating increasingly progressive attitudes to marriage, class, education and independence than the one before. While Louisa is somewhat ashamed of the breakdown of her daughter Laura’s marriage, Laura herself seems unperturbed, determined as she is to escape a miserable relationship for one based on love.

Louisa winced at the prospect of more talk; she blamed Laura and was angry with her; then she became apprehensive for her because she was leaving the ‘safe’ life; then, watching Laura flying about her packing with a happy face, she marvelled that nothing was ever as you expected it to be. Leaving a husband should surely be a momentous, dramatic affair, yet here was Laura behaving as if she did it every day. (p. 190)

Over the course of the novel, the narrative touches on many issues and developments including bullying, infidelity, authoritarianism and social rejection. Dorothy Whipple may not be the flashiest or most literary of writers, but her insights into women’s lives are always absorbing. Overall, Greenbanks seems a much better novel than The Priory, which I read last year – almost certainly more focused in its storytelling while still conveying more than enough character development to sustain interest. Moreover, Greenbanks doesn’t go for the obvious tidy ending, for one of the main characters at least. Definitely recommended for fans of middlebrow fiction from the early-mid 20th century.

Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing by Julian Maclaren-Ross (collection 2005, individual pieces 1938-1964)

I thoroughly enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection of writing by the British author, Julian Maclaren-Ross, the man who served as inspiration for the idiosyncratic X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time.

Bitten by the Tarantula comprises six sections spanning the titular novella, short fiction, unfinished long fiction, essays on the cinema, essays on literature/book reviews, and literary parodies. While a little uneven in parts, the volume as a whole demonstrates JMR’s breadth and versatility, skilfully moving from fiction to non-fiction and back again as the sections go by.

There’s plenty of impressive stuff here from the Waugh-like titular novella with its themes of debauchery and self-destruction to the affectionate literary spoofs with their nods to Patrick Hamilton, P.G. Wodehouse and other leading writers of the day.

Much of the short fiction is very interesting too, albeit a little mixed, rooted as it is in London’s Fitzrovia and the corresponding milieu. There are hints here of the greatness to come in JMR’s 1947 novel, Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore. Other pieces in this section are concerned with the war – minor comic gems on the bureaucratic frustrations of army life in WW2.

With the unfinished long fiction, we see Maclaren-Ross spreading his wings a little, trying out one or two different genres or styles for size. The Dark Diceman has the genesis of a compelling thriller, populated by a web of characters interconnected by the effects of crime. While these pieces are most definitely in their infancy, it’s fascinating to speculate as to how they might have turned out, particularly if given the right development and support.

However, it is the essays on cinema, authors and other literary topics that really shine for me – the author’s critiques on American film noir, British features, and the world of Alfred Hitchcock are probably worth the entry price alone. JMR was a big fan of Otto Preminger’s classic noir Laura (adapted from Vera Caspary’s novel of the same name), favouring it over the Billy Wilder’s much-feted Double Indemnity, another leading film from 1944.

Personally I preferred Laura by far. The dialogue was the most subtle and scintillating I have heard on a soundtrack for years; for once the script-writers had improved considerably on the novelist’s conception; from the first fade-in – the darkened screen and the sad impressive interior monologue – to the last scenes full of terrific suspense – Laura turning out light after light, locking herself in with the murderer when she believes she is alone in the flat; the murderer screwing his face up with a shudder of revulsion as he loads the shotgun […].(p. 248)

I know I’ve only skimmed the surface of this thoroughly absorbing book, but hopefully this given you a brief taster of what it contains. In summary, this is a fascinating selection of writing from a much-underrated author. One for lovers of film noir, British fiction and the seedy London milieu.

Greenbanks is published by Persephone Books, Bitten by the Tarantula by Black Spring Press; personal copies.

Recent Reads – Lanny by Max Porter, Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

Some brief thoughts on a few books I read towards the end of last year, all published in 2019.

Lanny by Max Porter

A relatively rare foray into contemporary fiction for me, but one that pretty much blew me away, both structurally and narratively. In short, this beguiling, poetic novella touches on themes of community, nurturing, difference and suspicion, blending the modern with the mythic in the most inventive of ways.

The titular Lanny – a wonderfully imaginative little boy – lives with his parents in a rural village somewhere in the home counties. Lanny’s mother, Jolie, stays at home to work on her fledgling novel, an activity which allows her to maintain a close bond with her son – something her commuter husband finds harder to sustain. Meanwhile, Lanny is allowed to roam freely amongst the woods and fields, exploring the natural habitat with all its inherent mysteries. Living alongside the family in the local community is Pete, an ageing artist who spends time with Lanny after school, encouraging his creativity and flourishing imagination.

Either side of us, woods. Ahead of us, hills. Counties lapping falsely at each other over the stone plates which rough-and tumbled to form this gentle landscape. Some very old trees round this way. Saints.

We tramp down the steep-walled chalk and moss run, tree roots like sea monsters lining our route, and we discuss the passing of time.

I tell Lanny about the ghost of Ben Hart who runs up and down this track trying to find his beloved. Headless Ben Hart calling out for his girl. I’m only teasing, trying to shit him up a bit, but he replies in all sincerity, Brilliant, I hope we meet him. (p. 31, Faber & Faber)

As this is a novella, I don’t want to reveal too much about the storyline – partly as it might spoil the magic for prospective readers. What I will say is that the book is brilliantly constructed, building very skilfully to an unexpected and moving conclusion; the final third, in particular, has a momentum all of its own. I’m not usually a fan of fables or stories containing elements of fantasy, but Lanny represents an exception to the rule. This is a thoroughly engaging novella, moving seamlessly between different styles, using language and imagery to great effect. Very highly recommended indeed.

Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall

An excellent collection of short stories from one of our most highly-regarded practitioners of the form. Here are tales of family ties, sex, vengeance, mortality, grief and loss, all conveyed in Hall’s characteristically lyrical prose.

Like Max Porter in Lanny, Hall occasionally blends the real with the imaginary in these pieces, transitioning from one mode to another to heighten the desired effect. This is particularly true of the opening story, M, in which a woman enacts her revenge on a series of abusive men.

Alongside the poetic beauty of Hall’s prose, there is a precision too – one that suggests an experienced writer who has honed her craft over several years.

Winter. It is colder than it’s been for years. Inside the walls of buildings water swells, turns rigid, splitting pipes, displacing bricks. Ceilings collapse with the weight of ice. The trees are black and stiff as railings. Long, productive darkness, but at dawn, and in twilight hours, there are great studios of teal above the city. She continues to administer, to those she didn’t reach, couldn’t reach, before. (p. 19, Faber & Faber) 

Fantasy also play a role in Orton, albeit in less fantastical form – the protagonist has been fitted with a pacemaker that can be deactivated by choice whenever she wishes to die. In this story, the central character chooses to revisit her past while contemplating her own impending mortality.

Other pieces are firmly grounded in reality, stories such as The Women the Book Read, in which a man living in a Turkish resort believes he recognises a woman from his past – presumably someone visiting the destination for a holiday. It is only once the man begins to follow this woman that their history becomes clear.

In a few of these pieces, Hall does that wonderful thing of upending our impressions of a character or situation partway through, causing us to question and reframe our initial assumptions. I love that about her work. It’s one of the things I most admire in a short story, where the narrative has to make a significant impact in a relatively brief window of time.

In short, this is a terrific collection of stories – sometimes beautiful, sometimes unsettling, always memorable. There is an elegance or delicacy to certain pieces, a quality that acts as a contrast with some of the visceral imagery. All in all, a very accomplished set of stories, vividly told.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

A luminous meditation on the interminable condition of insomnia, that shadowy hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness.

Anyone who has ever experienced the long-drawn-out restlessness of a night without sleep will almost certainly find themselves nodding along to various elements with this jewel-like book. Benjamin – a writer, journalist and editor by trade – writes beautifully about her intimate relationship with insomnia, punctuating her own experiences with fragments spanning the cultural, philosophical and artistic history of the condition in a way that feels both candid and immersive all at once. Her descriptions of insomnia are lyrical and lucid, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between disparate thoughts as the mind rapidly darts from one topic to another, like a pinball machine firing up in the subconscious.

Too often my insomniac mind is stuck in crud-chewing mode. It feeds me snippets of song, meshed with advertorial-type sloganising that might, in turn, trigger a memory from childhood before pinging back to a thought-of desire (a want) or to something I saw on the internet, or something someone told me – then on again, unpredictable, inconsequential, threading and worming inside my head. Nothing is more inimical to rest and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought. (pp. 85–86, Scribe)

The fragmentary structure of the book works very well, mirroring the disparate, almost dreamlike nature of the condition itself. At times, there are passages of heightened self-reflection, instances when Benjamin comes to question the impact of insomnia on her own existence – or, more specifically, her sense of self.

What time-bending tricks has life played on me? I have honoured every emotional contract I was signatory to and yet I seem to have lost myself. At moments such as these, everything that is closest to my heart, that generates the impression of gravity in my world, gets rudely pitched across the universe. (p. 94)

This is a beautiful, wise, insightful book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives. At its core, there is a deep-rooted yearning, a sense of longing for elusive restorative sleep, all captured in the author’s luminous poetic style. A book to keep on the night table for the bewitching hours between darkness and light, to dip into as balm for the soul.

(My thanks to the Independent Alliance/publishers for kindly providing reading copies of Lanny and Sudden Traveller.)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Back in early 2018, I read Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout’s widely acclaimed novel in short stories set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine. I adored the book but felt I couldn’t write about it at the time – partly because I was taking a break from blogging but mostly because I didn’t want to over-analyse it. Sometimes a book is just so perfect that it feels wrong somehow to break it down, as if by doing so one destroys the magic or fails to capture what makes it so special.

I feel much the same way about the sequel, Olive, Again (2019) – which if anything seems even better, even more profoundly insightful about the day-to-day burdens of life than its predecessor. Nevertheless, I want to try to note a few thoughts about this novel here as it will almost certainly feature in my reading highlights of the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with these books, both focus on Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher who lives in a small-town community in Maine, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s day-to-day business. Each book is structured as a sequence of interlinked short stories. Olive features in pretty much every story – sometimes front and centre in the narrative, other times on the periphery, bumping into the main character in the street, often with a somewhat dismissive wave of the hand over her head. Now and again, an individual from one of Strout’s other (non-Olive) novels appears, the connections to Olive – however tenuous – reaching out to encompass various strands of this author’s work.

Olive is a highly complex, multi-faceted character. She is direct, abrasive, intolerant and cranky; and yet she is also capable of demonstrating real empathy towards others, particularly those who feel depressed, neglected or marginalised by mainstream society. In Olive Again, a young woman dying from cancer is a particularly poignant example. Only Olive has the courage to visit this woman, easing her isolation with her straight-talking manner, while others are too embarrassed or fearful of what to say, preferring instead to avoid any contact.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, our protagonist is in her mid-seventies – newly widowed following the death of her husband, Henry – at the beginning of a potential new relationship with Jack, also bereaved, lonely and at a similar stage of life. The early chapters of Olive, Again chart the couple’s developing bond, a relationship not without its own tensions and frustrations. However, there is enough that unites Olive and Jack to enable them to progress to a shared existence and ultimately marriage in their twilight years. Jack, for his part, is somewhat more easy-going than Olive, more willing to accept her flaws and failings, loving her in spite of and because of her ‘Oliveness’.

The need for Olive to tell her son Christopher – a podiatrist now married to wife no. 2 – of her own forthcoming marriage, forms the basis of one the best, most acutely observed vignettes in the book. Olive’s failures as a mother are painful exposed to her during a tense family visit, as Christopher, Ann and their four children (two from Ann’s previous relationships) make the trip from their home in New York to Crosby, Maine.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She [Olive] had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the lap of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had caused this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack–stunned–she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind. (p. 91, Olive, Again, Viking)

These sudden realisations – the unexpected dawning of uncomfortable truths – run through the narrative as Olive finds herself reflecting on certain aspects of her life. Perhaps most notably, Olive dwells on her lack of appreciation of Henry when they were together as a couple, her coldness towards him when all he was doing was simply asking for her love. This particular insight first strikes Olive in the most unlikely of situations, in the midst of a baby shower which she finds utterly intolerable – both tedious and ridiculous in equal measure. It is one of the standout vignettes in this exceptional novel, laced with a blend of excruciating humour and lacerating poignancy.

In the final third of the book, we find Olive in her early eighties, trying to maintain a sense of independence as the years slip by. As a natural consequence of the ageing process, Olive must learn to accept help from others from time to time. Her interactions with a doctor and a team of home carers offer some deep insights into the human condition – not only for Olive but for her carers too. Everyone has to deal with their own hardships in life, irrespective of the nature of their position. Olive’s opinionated carer, Betty – an avid supporter of Trump, much to Olive’s horror – has her own challenges: more specifically, the fallout from two broken marriages and a son with special needs. Her life sucks, nevertheless it matters – Olive can see this even if Betty cannot.

While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself.

This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the community she lives in. The political nuances of small-town life are vividly portrayed, even when glimpsed for the tiniest of moments. Read it but be prepared to shed a tear or two…

Olive, Again is published by Viking; my thanks to Penguin Random House for kindly providing a reading copy.

(I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy of the finished book, used for the quotation here.)

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

I’ve been saving this collection of stories for a while, ever since my friend, N, picked it up for me during a trip to New York a couple of years ago. The twenty pieces included here span the period from 1891 to 1934, virtually the whole of Edith Wharton’s career as a writer. Several are in the style of Wharton’s great society novels, exploring the tensions between restraint and passion, sincerity and hypocrisy, respectability and disgrace. In short, they are sharp, nuanced and incisive. Here we see life as it was in the upper echelons of New York society with its traditional social mores and codes, frequently stifling freedom of action in favour of compliance and conformity.

The opening story, Mrs Manstey’s View, features a protagonist outside of Wharton’s own social class – a relatively lonely, elderly woman who lives at the back of a New York boarding house, far removed from the wealthy areas of the city. Mrs Manstey is largely confined to her room where she gains pleasure from gazing at the outside world via the view from her window. In spite of the dwelling’s urban location, various flowers and plants are visible and abundant, altering in prominence with the changing of the seasons.

Mrs. Manstey’s real friends were the denziens of the yards, the hyacinths, the magnolia, the green parrot, the maid who fed the cats, the doctor who studied late behind his mustard-colored curtains; and the confidant of her tenderer mustings was the church-spire floating in the sunset. (p. 6)

One day, Mrs Manstey learns that her neighbour, Mrs Black, is planning an extension, a full-sized structure that will block out her view – no longer will she be able to see the proliferation of the natural world, the tangle of shrubs that brighten her days. Mrs Manstey knows that drastic measures are called for, and she acts accordingly – to say any more would spoil the effect. This is a lovely story tinged with poignancy, one that highlights the value of beauty and pleasure over the desire for commercial gain.

In A Journey, one of the standout pieces in the collection, a respectable woman is escorting her husband home to New York following a spell in warmer climes. The husband is chronically ill and unlikely to recover, but for now appears to be well enough to make the trip. With the train journey underway, the wife proceeds to reflect on the past. There is a sense that the couple’s marriage has deteriorated in line with (or possibly even ahead of) the husband’s decline in health, such is the extent of the change in his character.

Tensions increase when the wife realises that her husband has died during the journey, a development that raises the stakes in an already strained situation. Fearing their expulsion from the train if the body is discovered, the wife must try to conceal the death from the other passengers – something that is easier said than done, particularly given the crowded nature of their compartment.

After that many faces seemed to press upon her. The passengers were on their way to the dining-car, and she was conscious that as they passed down the aisle they glanced curiously at the closed curtains. One lantern-jawed man with prominent eyes stood still and tried to shoot his projecting glance through the division between the folds. The freckled child, returning from breakfast, waylaid the passers with a buttery clutch, saying in a loud whisper, “He’s sick”; and once the conductor came by, asking for tickets. She shrank into her corner and looked out of the window at the flying trees and houses, meaningless hieroglyphs of an endlessly unrolled papyrus. (pp. 95-96)

This is a superb story, steeped in mood and emotion, giving it the feel of a nightmare or hallucination. Wharton excels in her portrayal of a woman on the edge, the rhythm of her prose mirroring the relentless momentum of the train as it hurtles onwards to its final destination. A tour de force in miniature with some very memorable imagery.

The Rembrandt is a lovely, beautifully-observed story of opposing principles, one that highlights the importance of human emotions in any financially-based decision. It focuses on a museum art dealer who is called upon to give his opinion on a picture owned by a friend of his cousin’s – a lady by the name of Mrs Fontage. Finding herself in need of money, Mrs Fontage wishes to sell the picture, which she believes to be a Rembrandt. However, on seeing the painting, the dealer can tell it is nothing of the kind. What is he to do? If he tells Mrs Fontage the painting is worthless, he will shatter not only her future but her memories of the past, too – the story behind the acquisition of the picture is clearly very precious. On the other hand, if he says nothing or gives the impression that the painting is valuable, her hopes will be raised under false pretences. In short, there appears to be no easy way out for the dealer, irrespective of the option he chooses.

Looking at that lamentable canvas seemed the surest way of gathering strength to denounce it: but behind me, all the while, I felt Mrs. Fontage’s shuddering pride drawn up in a final effort of self-defense. I hated myself for my sentimental perversion of the situation. Reason argued that it was more cruel to deceive Mrs. Fontage than to tell her the truth; but that merely proved the inferiority of reason to instinct in situations involving any concession to the emotions. (p. 105)

All in all, this is an excellent story, one with a surprise or two up its sleeve.

Autres Temps…, another excellent piece, explores the social scandal surrounding divorce, particularly in the years of the late 19th century. Interestingly, it also illustrates how attitudes were beginning to change, highlighting the contrast between the Old New York and a younger, more liberal society starting to break through.

The story focuses on Mrs Lidcote who, years earlier was condemned by her peers for leaving her husband for another man. When it transpires that her daughter, Leila, is about to get divorced in similar circumstances, Mrs. Lidcote is assured that times have changed. Divorce is no longer considered quite as shameful as it once was, leaving Mrs Lidcote free to return to New York from her self-imposed exile abroad. However, once she is installed in Leila’s new marital home, Mrs Lidcote realises that a re-entry into society will not be quite as simple to achieve. While attitudes have moved on, Mrs Lidcote’s position has not; her time has passed, leaving her tainted for eternity.

“…Probably no one in the house with me stopped to consider that my case and Leila’s were identical. They only remembered that I’d done something which, at the time I did it, was condemned by society. My case has been passed on and classified: I’m the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half forgotten why, and the younger ones have never really known: it’s simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest of all to destroy.” (pp. 319-320)

The final story is another standout, quite possibly the best in the collection. In Roman Fever, two lifelong friends and neighbours, Mrs Slade and Mrs Ansley – both middle-aged New Yorkers, both widows – are sitting on a roof-top terrace overlooking Rome where they are holidaying with their adult daughters. As they gaze across the city, the two women recall past times, in particular their previous visit to the capital some twenty-five years earlier. In this wonderful story of bottled-up jealously, rage and long-held resentment, Mrs Slade confronts her friend in a bid to establish her superiority, dredging up old secrets and acts of duplicity in the process.

To reveal much more might spoil the effect; suffice it to say that this story comes with a killer ending, one of the best last lines I can recall in any story, not just those by this author.

This is a sparkling collection of stories with much to recommend it. Wharton’s prose is precise and incisive, frequently shedding light on the complexities of our motivations and behaviours.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve been working my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s stories, slowly but surely over the last couple of years. Originally published in 1965, A Dedicated Man was her third collection of short fiction, and I think it’s my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. (You can read my posts about the first two here: Hester Lilly and The Blush.). As ever, Taylor demonstrates her skill in capturing people in their most private of moments. In short, we see individuals facing up to dashed dreams, social embarrassment and the realities of their marginalised lives.

As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going try to cover every story; instead, I’ll try to focus on a few favourites to give you a flavour of the volume as a whole.

The collection opens with Girl Reading, a poignant story of inadequacies and social embarrassment. Etta Salkeld, a young girl from a relatively poor background, enjoys staying with her well-to-do schoolfriend, Sarah Lippmann, during the holidays. The Lippmanns are a sociable, sophisticated bunch, their home full of activity with guests dropping in and out at various times of the day. Etta feels at home there, particularly as she longs to be part of a lively, comfortable family – one where she can observe other individuals at first hand, not just in books. Mrs Salkeld would like her daughter to invite Sarah to their house to return the Lippmans’ hospitality, but Etta is embarrassed by the shabbiness of the place and fears her friend would be bored – points that hit home to Mrs Salkeld when she finally gets to meet Mrs Lippmann in her rather grand surroundings. The contrast between the two women is very striking.

Etta, who had never seen her mother drinking sherry before, watched nervously, as if she might not know how to do it. Mrs Salkeld—remembering the flavour from Christmas mornings many years ago and—more faintly—from her mother’s party trifle—sipped cautiously. In an obscure way she was doing this for Etta’s sake. “It may speed her on her way,” thought Mrs Lippmann, playing idly with her charm bracelet, having run out of conversation. (p. 29)

The Thames Spread Out features Rose, a middle-aged woman who lives on her own in a house by the river. Every Friday, Rose receives a visit from her married lover, Gilbert, who stops off to see her on his way home to his wife. For the rest of the week, Rose must survive largely on the money that Gilbert leaves when he departs on Saturday mornings, treating herself to a few peppermint creams and other little indulgences when she can.

This Friday everything is different; the river has flooded, and the roads are impassable, leaving Rose trapped in the upstairs of her house, somewhat at the mercy of a couple of unfamiliar men who are staying next door. It is only once the water starts to recede that Rose realises the true emptiness of her life, especially when she compares it to that of her sister.

When it was dark she pinned the curtains together again and sat down at the table, simply staring in front of her; at the back of her mind, listening. In the warm living-room of her sister’s house, the children in dressing-gowns would be eating their supper by the fire; Roy, home from a football match, would be lying back in his chair. Their faces would be turned intently to the blue-white shifting screen of a television. (p. 61)

This is a quietly devasting story, the type of piece that Elizabeth Taylor does so well – and yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end as Rose finally takes control of her life.

In A Dedicated Man, a pompous waiter, Silcox, and his dull but dependable colleague, Edith, have taken the opportunity to move positions from a shabby seaside B&B to a more refined hotel in the Home Counties. The need to masquerade as husband and wife seems a small sacrifice to make, particularly for the improvement in the pair’s standing. After a somewhat awkward period of adjustment to sharing a twin-bedded room, Silcox and Edith begin to settle into a rhythm, buoyed by their ambitions and desires to succeed. However, when Silcox invents a son to give the couple a more rounded family background, the tissue of lies begins to unravel, ultimately exposing him to ridicule and scandal. This is a powerful piece, a fitting lead story for the collection as a whole.

Holidays feature in several pieces in this collection, perhaps most notably In a Different Light. In this story, Barbara is visiting Jane, her recently widowed sister at her home in Greece. While there, Barbara forms an unlikely friendship with Roland, a young man holidaying on his own, his wife preferring to stay with her sister in Buxton. The relationship is all very chaste as Barbara and Roland settle into a rhythm of walks in the countryside and siestas in the afternoon. Before leaving the island, the pair exchange addresses, never thinking that they will actually meet up again; but in her restlessness back home, Barbara decides to invite Roland and his wife, Iris, for Sunday lunch, just to recapture something of the visit. When Iris arrives, she reveals herself to be loud and pushy, so much so that Barbara’s young children take an instant dislike to her. Roland, for his part, is a different person altogether, more formal and serious than he seemed in Greece. As Barbara reflects on the situation, she realises the true nature of Roland’s life with Iris, the stripping away of his verve and vitality.

These weeks, since his return from the island, must have been worse than hers, she realised—as the rest of his life would be worse, His experience must have been deeper, his brief escape desperately planned and wearily paid for. It was something for her—for Iris—to deride along with the other things. Once he had liked music, he had told Jane in answer to one of her off-hand enquiries; later the sisters had laughed about it, but Barbara could not have laughed now. She could see too clearly the history of discarded interests. (pp. 89-90)

In The Voices, Laura, a young woman recovering from an illness, is holidaying at a hotel in Athens; but instead of going on excursions to see the sights herself, Laura spends much of her time listening to the two women in the adjacent room as they discuss their own trips to various places of interest. In effect, Laura is living her holiday through the activities of these women, imagining how they look as they go about their days. This is another beautifully observed story with a glimmer of brightness at the end.

In the Sun also features individuals abroad, this time three English couples holidaying at the same characterless hotel in Morocco. This a story of petty snobberies and prejudices as the couples observe and gossip about one another – especially the Wallaces, the last of the three pairs to arrive. It’s also the most amusing piece in the collection, laced as it is with Taylor’s fabulously sharp wit.

No need to explain who Janice was. The Troughtons knew all about Janice, who was training to be a nurse. They knew about the hospital too—the matron, sisters, patients. Mrs Troughton thought she could find her way blindfold about it. […] She would also be quite at home in the other Crouch girl’s, Carol’s, office, and in their house in Guilford, with its frilled nylon curtains at seven-and-elevenpence a yard; its sun-lounge and bar—quilted plastic décor done by Mr Crouch…Leslie…Daddy…himself. (p. 192)

As the story draws to a close, there is a surprise revelation, one that leads the others to view the Wallaces in a somewhat different light, in spite of the fault lines in their unlikely marriage.

All in all, this is a superb collection of stories from Elizabeth Taylor. She portrays her characters in a way that conveys an acute understanding of their immediate situation – their hopes and dreams, their day-to-day preoccupations and concerns, their petty foibles and failings.

A Dedicated Man is published by Virago; personal copy.