Previously I have very much enjoyed Rachel Joyce’s three novels. The Love song of Miss Queenie Hennessey which I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books last year my favourite of the three.So I bought The Snow Garden & other stories as soon as I started to see tweets about it – and the gorgeous book jacket clinched the deal.
I think it was last Christmas that I bought one of those mini-books you sometimes see by the cash register at Waterstone’s – it was a book called A Faraway Smell of Lemon, a lovely Christmas short story by Rachel Joyce, about Binny a single mother struggling with the season following a break up of her relationship, escaping from a PTA member on a mission she finds herself in a shop she has never been into before. A second story in this collection (one of my favourites actually) The Boxing Day Ball set in the 1960’s was also very familiar to me – I finally worked out I had read it in the Guardian online. The Boxing Day Ball will be especially enjoyed by fans of Harold Fry; young Maureen has never been out with the other local girls, they seem cool remote creatures, she is desperate to go to the local dance and is amazed when her disapproving mother presents her with a new dress. Both of these stories are included in this new collection. I admit I was a tiny bit disappointed that of these seven linked Christmas themed stories only five were new me – which of course I only discovered when I began reading. I was certainly happy to re-read those two particular stories; somehow Rachel Joyce’s characters have a habit of quickly becoming old friends.
With this collection of stories Rachel Joyce has proved herself a more than competent short story writer – an art I think sometimes under-appreciated these days. I do think that the stories Rachel Joyce writes in her novels are explored in greater depth and with greater subtlety than these stories perhaps allow – however they are all surprisingly touching and rather lovely and make for bittersweet Christmas reading. In her Foreword, Rachel Joyce explains her own feeling about short stories – a feeling which is my own, this the very reason why I love short stories – and still have far too many collections waiting to be read.
“We are at the centre of our own stories. And sometimes it is hard to believe that we are not at the centre of other people’s. But I love the truth that you can walk past a person, with your own story, your own life, so big in your mind and at the same time be a simple passer-by in someone else’s. A walk-on part.”
Rachel Joyce – Foreword to A Snow Garden & other stories
One of the strengths of these stories is that they are firmly rooted in a very recognisable modern Britain; we have a divorced father recovering from a breakdown, a globally famous popstar arriving home, a European migrant same sex couple about to be parents. The time of year links these people, and their stories – some of the characters are actually linked – as does an advertising image which seems to be everywhere, though no one seems to know what it is advertising.
In ‘The Marriage Manual’ on Christmas Eve a couple who have been married over twenty years – try to put a bike together for their twelve year old son – and in the process begin to unpick the joins in their marriage while upstairs their son wishes for a green dress.
Christmas at the Airport is a lovely modern take on the old nativity story. Latvian Magda is heavily pregnant, her partner Johanna is Romanian. A computer glitch has brought the airport to a standstill – travellers are stranded. As Magda goes into labour, we meet a family called King, and the animal reception centre is in chaos.
“Johanna asks everyone. The answer is always the same. No, they will not give up their seat. ‘But my wife,’ she says in her broken English. ‘She is pregnant.’ Well, that only makes it worse. People won’t even catch her eyes when they hear that.
‘You should go home,’ someone tells her, and she doesn’t know whether he means back to the flat or Eastern Europe.”
(from Christmas at the Airport)
In ‘A Snow Garden’ two young boys are unwillingly deposited with their father for the Christmas holidays – following his breakdown, they call him Henry not dad. Henry has rashly promised them snow that Christmas – a promise he realises – with the weather so unseasonably mild – he will almost certainly have to break.
The most famous boy in the world is coming home for Christmas (albeit a few days after the true event) in I’ll be Home for Christmas. Tim has become ‘X’ and the publicity machine and cameras that punctuate his peculiar celebrity life descend upon Sylvia’s home as she tries to make everything perfect for her famous son.
In ‘Trees’ we come full circle in a way with a wonderful story which links particularly to A Faraway Smell of Lemon – I’ll not say too much about that. In it we meet ‘the guerrilla gardener’ who feels that on New Year’s Eve he must go out and plant trees, and he calls on his unhappy son Oliver to help. Oliver has made an enormous error – he is unhappy – other people are unhappy – and he is haunted by the memories of a recent time when everything was perfect.
“Sometimes everything in life seemed right. You had all the things you wanted, all you’d hoped for, only when you looked properly you realised they were all in the wrong context, as if without noticing you’d drifted into the wrong story. Oliver had no idea how he would ever set things straight.”
This was a lovely light read at the end of an exhausting week – I seem to have need of a few such reads this last few weeks. I enjoy Rachel Joyce’s writing, it’s beautifully heartfelt, and her deceptively simple narrative style disguises the big themes that she explores with compassionate understanding.