With thanks to Sarah Vincent for sending this book for review.
Earlier this year I read The Testament of Vida Tremayne, Sarah Vincent’s first novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it – and recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys novels with a psychological bent, rooted in the British countryside. I was therefore delighted when Sarah contacted me again, offering me a copy of her short story anthology The Gingerbread Wife. It’s a slim volume, and I was able to read it in a day, utterly engrossed. I love short stories, and these proved right up my street, with its mix of magic realism, traditional ghost story, and other dark tales featuring the occult, rural Spain and even disturbing post-apocalyptic society.
The title story; The Gingerbread Wife – is set in a post-apocalyptic society, a world reminiscent of the middle ages. Warren is a farmer, married to Molly who he doesn’t appreciate, wonders why he allowed himself to be married to her. Molly’s back has been damaged by the years on the farm, the cures haven’t worked for long. Warren decides to send his wife to the Bone Man – who he says will straighten her back out again. This story certainly gets this collection off to a brilliant start – the reader jolted out of our comfortable world – into a world where the modern niceties don’t apply.
“The Bone-man lived in the wreck of an old mansion where even the commune of squatters had flown. The winds prowled and blew the place down by degrees; the crumbling balustrades and columns, the weed strewn terraces and vines and caved-in-staircases, the prospects of fountains where headless heroes slayed their dragons.”
Sarah Vincent is very adept at pulling the rug out from under our feet – her stories although not actually frightening, have a dark heart, and can be deliciously un-nerving, they are quirky and superbly imagined.
I’m not going to say too much about Think Big, as to do so would almost certainly spoil it for other readers. What I loved about it though, was the thought provoking nature of the story which explores what is a very real issue for many people.
In Esmeralda a man with two failed marriages behind him, has recently returned to his suburban home with his El-Salvadorian wife who he found through an agency. He only wants her for one thing – he doesn’t really care that she only speaks a little English – in fact he prefers it that way. He despises the woman next door – Jan – in her unbecoming baggy shorts and blonde bob – who tells him brightly about the panther that is rumoured to be on the loose.
The Centipede; set in rural Spain, where Annie and her slightly pathetic husband are being bullied by his sister. The sister; Elsa has lived in Spain for a while and wants her brother and sister-in-law to move there too, she’s even prepared to bank roll paying for the cottage she has picked out for them. Annie; however, has already been seriously un-nerved by Elsa’s stories of a deadly centipede in the area, unsure that she wants to live in a place where such creatures exist but Elsa is the kind of person who generally gets what she wants.
“The Devil is easy to recognise, handsome, with smouldering eyes and the crackle of hell-fire about him. His sartorial elegance is without equal. In my dream, he was wearing lizard skin Oxfords, and a waistcoat made from the softest nubuck; a gold Rolex glittered among the black hairs of his wrist. Instead of a pitchfork, he twirled a silver-topped cane. I didn’t see any horns. The Devil is far too subtle for that. If he beckons to you, you must never, ever follow. No matter how irresistible he seems.”
Is it the devil himself who makes an appearance in Manipura? A lonely wife whose husband is away a lot, meets Mr Olds the chimney sweep when she thinks that a bird has got stuck in the chimney of her cottage. Who is Mr Olds, and why does this middle-aged wife find so drawn to him?
The Last to Leave is a fabulously spooky tale, a story of a building and a strange kind of haunting.
The narrator of The Perambulator has a gift – although she doesn’t quite see it like that. She is able to see the spirits that surround the people around her. Working in a café she sees a woman with a baby in a large old fashioned pram. The woman is shadowed by the presence of a spirit woman, a woman who wants the child for herself.
A group of women who belong to the same art group, retreat to a cottage miles from nowhere for a couple of weeks of concentrated work and reflection in Well-Being. Alfreda is the driving force of the group, and Alice soon begins to resent Alfreda’s way of doing things, her insistence on throwing coins into the wishing well. One evening Alice finds herself standing by the wishing well.
Sarah Vincent is an excellent write, I love her writing style, the strong women characters who all exist on the outside of life in some way. Women who suffer from lack of confidence, loneliness, have their lives directed by men who don’t care enough for them, or are haunted by something. It really is testament to Sarah Vincent’s writing how well explored these characters are, so difficult to achieve within the constraints of short fiction.
I am now very much looking forward to reading more from Sarah Vincent in the future, she is an author well worth reading if you haven’t already.