Posts Tagged ‘short stories’


I’m sure most of you know by now just how much I love Elizabeth Taylor – but I still haven’t read quite everything she wrote. I have been saving the last two volumes of short stories for quite a while – now there is only one left. The short story form, seems to have suited Elizabeth Taylor perfectly, and The Devastating Boys first published in 1972 I have seen described as her best. It is pretty much sheer perfection.

There are eleven stories in this collection – and they are all quite brilliant, though I am not going to write about each story separately – but attempt to give a flavour of the whole collection. On of things that Elizabeth Taylor can do in her short stories is to have her characters step fully formed from the pages, and the reader is immediately involved in their lives. These stories take place both at home and abroad, and concern a variety of types. We have remembrances of childhood holidays and the infatuations they bring. Loneliness and humour sit side by side throughout this delicious collection. In two of the stories there is certainly an acknowledgement of the changing face of Britain, as Elizabeth Taylor introduces us to some more diverse characters than we perhaps usually associate with her, in the title story and in Tall Boy. This later story tells the rather poignant story of Jasper; a young man, an immigrant not long arrived in England. I don’t want to say too much about that one as it could spoil it – but it is certainly one of my favourites in the collection.

“He imagined home having the same time as England. He would have felt quite lost to his loved ones if when he woke in the night, he could not be sure that they were lying in darkness too and, when his own London morning came, their also came, the sun streamed through the cracks of their hut in shanty-town, and the little girls began to chirp and skip about.” (Tall Boy)

The title story, the first one in the book, is an absolute delight, some of the language is a little old fashioned, though never offensive, it brings together two vastly different worlds. Laura and Harold are a fairly typical Taylor married couple, upper middle class, they live in a nice house within easy reach of a railway link to London, their daughters have grown up and left home. Harold came up with the idea of having disadvantaged London children to stay for a holiday. Having read of the scheme, Harold had volunteered himself and Laura (though it will be Laura who will have to entertain them) insisting that the children they take should be black. So, when summer comes, it is a nervous Laura who waits at the station for these two young London boys, Septimus Smith and Benny Reece.

“They stood on the platform, looking about them, holding their little cardboard cases.
‘My name is Laura,’ she said. She stooped and clasped them to her, and kissed their cheeks. Sep’s in particular, was extraordinarily soft, like the petal of a poppy. His big eyes stared up at her, without expression. He wore a dark long-trousered suit. So that he was all over sombre and unchildlike. Benny had a mock-suede coat with a nylon-fur collar and a trilby hat with a feather. They did not speak. Not only was she, Laura, strange to them, but they were strange to one another. There had only been a short train-journey in which to sum up their chances of becoming friends.” (The Devastating Boys)

Two weeks stretches out before them all, what will Laura do with these silent, large eyed small boys. Elizabeth Taylor writes these characters with such affection and without any of the patronising condescension that other writers of her class have been known to adopt when writing of the working classes. The Devastating Boys is a story I could read over and over – by the end – when the children must return to London – there is a definite feeling that Septimus and Benny will always be a part of Harold and Laura’s life.

In stories like Sisters – Elizabeth Taylor achieves quite a lot in just a few pages. Here we have Mrs Mason, a widow, she prides herself on her respectability. We quickly learn all we need to know, Mrs Mason is childless, attends coffee mornings in aid of worthy charities, plays bridge regularly, takes tea in a nearby tea-rooms. She is a respected figure in her English county town, and she shudders at the thought that her respectability could be threatened when a journalist appears asking questions about the sister that no one in the town knows anything about.

An annoyingly precocious child spends her summer holidays making daily visits to various houses in the story In and Out the Houses. At each house, she drops snippets of information about the other households she has visited that day. Small jealousies and pretensions are revealed, as Kitty Miller happily skips from house to house leaving tiny seeds of chaos in her wake.

Several stories take place abroad; the differences in a newly married couple becoming painfully apparent in Hôtel Du Commerce, the ending almost inevitable is nevertheless brilliant. Blowsy pub landlady Phyl; contemplates a fling while on holiday in a sunbathed Mediterranean resort, in the story Flesh. Even here, we meet a recognisable type of person, and as ever Taylor recreates them perfectly.

“For the sake of a tan, she was wasting her holiday – just to be a five minutes’ wonder in the bar on her return, the deepest brown any of them had that year.” (Flesh).

The one story which feels a bit like the odd one out (not to say it isn’t brilliant because it is) is The Fly Paper, which I have read before in another collection. It is a real spine chiller – reminding me a little of those Tales of the Unexpected that I used to watch with partial dread, occasionally, when I was in my teens. Sylvia is an eleven year old, travelling on a bus to her music lesson, it is a journey she makes regularly, but what happens to Sylvia on this particular Wednesday – really is the stuff of nightmares – and yet Taylor writes it with such exquisite subtlety.

The Devastating Boys is a truly superb collection, and one which demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s skill at revealing the truths within communities. Dangerous Calm is the final collection of Elizabeth Taylor stories I have to read, I want to have it to look forward to for a little while yet.


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This month the Librarything Virago group are reading the work of Edith Wharton. I chose Roman Fever a collection of short stories which I have had for some time.

The short story Roman Fever first appeared in 1934 – although this particular collection wasn’t published until 1964 these stories come from across the long period in which Edith Wharton was writing. I assume, therefore, that these stories probably do appear in collections first published during Wharton’s lifetime.

The title story of this collection also appears in The Persephone book of short stories – memorable for its final line – it is the perfect story to start off this little collection, and one I was very happy to revisit. It is a little piece of perfection from Edith Wharton. Two middle ages matrons; Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, are in Rome with their daughters, the two women don’t move from their position on a terrace overlooking the  city they each have reason to remember from their youth.

“ ‘I always used to think’ Mrs Slade continued, ‘that our mothers had a much more difficult job than our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in – didn’t they?’
She turned again toward Mrs Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. ‘One, two, three – slip two; yes, they must have been she assented without looking up.”

The two women have known each other many years, first as young women brought to Rome by their mothers, and later living on the same street in New York as married women. Their friendship is gradually revealed to exist only superficially. While their daughters go off together to explore the city, to have fun, the older women stay behind, knitting rolled up in their bags, reminiscing over past days. It’s a masterly example of subtlety, as the true nature of Grace and Alida’s jealousies and a long-held secret are unearthed through their conversation.

The remaining stories were all new to me, they are all excellent in their way, but although there are only eight in the collection, I won’t be discussing each of them. Famous for her stories depicting the upper echelons of New York society, the themes Wharton explores in these stories feel very familiar. Many of these stories show the contradictions in a society of slowly shifting mores. The daughters of women whose lives were once so narrowed by convention, find their lives easier, their lives less judged than their mothers’. In others Wharton details the absurdities of the conventional society she was a part of.

In Xingu Wharton’s wry humour is revealed as she portrays the intellectual snobbery of a society ladies lunch group. The women meet to discuss the latest books or ideas, there seems little enjoyment, and a good deal of anxiety among the women who try to outdo each other in intellectualism. Mrs Roby is the newest member of the group – and the other women are already questioning her suitability.

“…it was now openly recognised that as a member of the Lunch club Mrs Roby was a failure. ‘It all comes.’ As Miss Van Vluyck put it, ‘of accepting a woman on a man’s estimation.’”

Celebrated writer Osric Dane has been invited to attend the next meeting to be held at the house of Mrs Ballinger. All the women are nervous about the meeting – nobody wants to show themselves up in front of the guest. Mrs Roby however, when the great day arrives, has her own interesting way of turning the conversation. Highlighting the snobberies of the women who have been sitting in judgement of her.

Mr Waythorn is a newly married husband in The other two, his wife only thirty five, is twice divorced with a twelve year old daughter. Society is changing, attitudes now much more tolerant to divorced women. However, Waythorn has the embarrassment of having to deal with both of his wife’s former husbands. This is something, society has certainly not prepared him.

Souls Belated is one story in which the hypocrisies of society thwart the happiness of people caught by its conventions. Lydia has left her husband, and is now travelling in Europe with her lover Gannett. Lydia and Gannett find a quiet hotel to settle in temporarily yet they find that the conventions that society put upon them, mean they must either lie about being married – or slip away to Paris and get married. Lydia doesn’t want to get married eager to pull away from the conventions she so hates. So much goes unspoken between Lydia and Gannett, and the reader fears they will remain so.

With The Angel at the grave Wharton highlights the plight of Victorian women who sacrifice their lives to the men of their families. In this case a granddaughter spends her whole life trying to keep the memory of her grandfather and his life’s work alive to others. In doing so, she ends up having no life of her own, it’s a sad and no doubt all true tale of pointless sacrifice, it was also my least favourite out of a truly superb collection.

“All of their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them—her name was Mabel—as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement ring.”

Autres Temps… the final story of the collection was certainly (along with the title story) one of my favourites. Again, we see the hypocrisy of society, as the rules applied to the younger generation are not advanced to the older generation who have suffered under their strictures for years. Mrs Lidcote is a woman who broke societies rules twenty years earlier when she divorced, she has been living abroad in exile, shunned by everyone in her society ever since. Upon hearing that her beloved daughter Leila has divorced, and immediately remarried, Mrs Lidcote hurries back to New York. However, she is made aware that society doesn’t care that Leila has divorced and remarried, her daughter isn’t shunned, her remarriage is accepted and her second husband in line for an enviable appointment. Mrs Lidcote begins to wonder whether these new acceptances might not after all be applied to her – that perhaps now, finally she too may be able to find happiness with a man she has held at arm’s length. Society, however it seems is not so rational as all that.

These stories show Edith Wharton at her best, wry, satirical and astutely observed – she examines the changes in society and how it treats those who flout its rules.

edith wharton 2

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Recently – last month in fact I read The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner which I loved, it reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. I already knew that her short stories are highly thought of but it was this collection of all of them that I particularly liked the sound of.

“It is nothing to children to lose their illusions, tadpoles are much more put about when they lose their tails.”

Scenes of Childhood and other stories – as the title suggests draws heavily upon STW’s own life, especially that of her childhood. Throughout this wonderful collection – Sylvia Townsend Warner appears as herself, as do other members of her family. It is hard to remember sometimes that this a collection of stories – however autobiographical, it often feels more like a collection of memoirs. Therefore, I suppose we must assume that STW been a little creative here and there, bringing her own great gift of storytelling to the entertaining stories within her own family. Although STW never wrote an autobiography, these pieces which were written at periods throughout her life – compiled into this volume after her death – make for a fabulous alternative.

Scenes of Childhood contain a large number of pieces and it would be impossible I think to talk about each of them, many are very short. In its entirety, the collection leaves the reader with a wonderful sense of the woman behind the stories and the family she came from. Her father was a housemaster at Harrow (where she was born) her mother an artist. In this collection, they are re-created with huge affection and humour. The woman who emerges from this collection is one who grew up deeply loved, within a family which gave her the room to develop into the woman who wrote the glorious Lolly Willowes.

We accompany the Warners on holiday to Wild Wales, where Sylvia was reunited with Johnnie and Nanny Blount – “a monolith devoted to duty” as STW describes her. Taking very seriously the moral welfare of her young charges Nanny Blount is especially fond of morning and evening worship. Sylvia’s most joyous remembrance of her is seeing her chased by cows after an altercation in a country lane. This opening story gets us off to a fine start, introducing us to a family it becomes a pleasure to spend time with. Sylvia remembers her mother’s artistic preparations before they set off.

“Before our summer holiday in Wales, with mountains and hydrangeas in mind, she laid in so many tubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean that I too young to have any geographical notions as to where we were going, knew for a certainty that Wales would be blue.”

Other stories, bearing such titles as: My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the poodle, Lord Kitchener and the mouse – relate small eccentric goings on in the Warner household. Lord Kitchener is a cat, the poodle was always just called the poodle. When Mrs Warner is disturbed on several nights by a mouse ‘gnawing’ and shaking the foot of the bed, her husband, the poodle and the cat are each called in to lend a hand, much to the bewilderment of their house-guests who are woken by the ensuing chaos.

As an older child, Sylvia recalls in a story called How I left the Navy – that one day arriving home in her lovely dapper little sailor suit she wore while enjoying winter activities with the British Navy – her mother suddenly ripped the little hat off her head and banned all further association. It was years before she knew why – that Mrs Warner had learned from a local gossip that the ship depicted on her daughter’s little hat, had been turned into a hospital ship for sailors with venereal disease. Mrs Warner is wonderfully reproduced here –in Fried Eggs are Mediterranean we see her and the family holidaying in the Devon countryside – experimenting with self-sufficiency (no servant), she spends each day trying to perfect boiled eggs – eventually hitting on the idea of reciting the fifty-first psalm in Latin as a means to time the perfect boiled egg.

Then there’s Stanley Sherwood; the story of a dreadful butler, who having loomed over the family with his ghastly smile for years, too good to be sacked but universally loathed, he returns as a fireman and takes his own peculiar revenge.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his clothes were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

How much of these stories are strictly true, I suppose we can’t really know – but I sort of hope (and now firmly believe) that they are absolutely all true; Nanny chasing cows, bedstead gnawing mice – I believe. Happily, these stories don’t just stop at childhood, we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as a young woman, organising a home for Belgian refugees, exploring churches and their bell towers while her dog barks furiously at the vicar. She recalls with gentle humour, arguments which ensue as members of a Dorset village organise celebrations for a coronation, which in the wake of the abdication must be changed to celebrate a George instead of an Edward.

This is a glorious collection; one I am certain I will revisit. I really don’t think Sylvia Townsend Warner is capable of writing anything that is not brilliant, though I still have two novels and several collections of stories to read.



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Translated by Eoin Bates and Sandrine Brisset.

Kindly sent to me by Sandrine Brisset – one of the translators.

Some time ago I read Dimanche and other stories – a collection of Iréne Némirovsky short stories re-issued by Persephone books. Since then, despite my best intentions I have only read one Némirovsky novel, Suite Française. I was delighted therefore to have to have the opportunity to read In Confidence a new collection of previously unpublished stories.

Famously of course several of Némirovsky’s works have been published decades after the author’s death in Auschwitz in 1942 when she was aged just 39. When she died, Némirovsky was already a published author, and for some a controversial one, due to the depiction of Jewish people in her work. Némirovsky had been baptised a catholic in 1939, but in 1940s Paris her Jewish heritage meant she was forced to wear the yellow star. I shudder now to imagine the fate of this wonderfully talented writer, a fate shared by so many whose talent and names remain unknown to us. Reading Némirovsky is always such a poignant reminder of this.

In this collection Némirovsky explores a variety of characters – mainly women – exposing their secrets and desires. Be it Parisian suburbs or small French towns, in the years between the wars, there is a wonderfully strong sense of place. Némirovsky’s canvases are small, her themes however are not. She examines the human condition, the things which go unspoken, the secrets, unexplained mysteries and histories behind the seemingly ordinary middle aged, middle class people  who we meet in her stories.

I’m sure lots of other people will be reading this collection soon, so I will merely attempt to give a slight flavour of the collection – which I think is absolutely superb.

There are eight stories in this collection, opening with Epilogue, in which an American woman, a pianist, confesses her darkest secret to a fellow regular in a bar she frequents.

An Honest Man, tells the sad story of an ageing man cut off from his once adored son, because the father suspects the son of theft. The father nurses his fury, and his own dark secret, disinheriting his son, and refusing to see him. As the father lies dying, the son arrives at a nearby hotel – hoping that his father will consent to see him one last time.

Lunch in September Thérèse Dallas, a married middle aged woman, is remined of a man she used to have a secret infatuation for, Suddenly, he appears and asks her to lunch.

The title story In Confidence – was undoubtedly my favourite. Blanche Lajunie feels her best years are behind her, approaching middle age she obliged to earn her living teaching the spoiled teenage daughter of relatives – among other pupils. On the morning the story takes place, she visits her doctor, before returning home where she gives lessons. Blanche understands how she is viewed by her pupil. While her pupil can only think about the handsome boy across the street, Blanche wishes only to share the story of her one great romance, when she was a young girl. Blanche Lajunie is a beautifully drawn character, Némirovsky shows us the sad quality of her life, the frustration of her position, equally well drawn is Colette her pupil.

“The indifferent crowd pushed her on. It was noon. All the shops and offices were closing their doors. Everyone was rushing. No one even glanced at her. No one would recognise this supreme effort of the propriety and dignity she was imposing on herself… But she would not give up. She would walk home. At the moment of her death she would be able to think in all honesty, ‘I was my own mistress until the very last day.’”

(In Confidence)

In a rather different little story, Magic tells the story of a man who whilst in Finland as a young man, joined in a group entertainment of ‘table-turning.’ The memory of the resulting magic stays with him for many years. It is a story which considers the question of destiny.

In The Fire Madame Georges and her husband pride themselves on their ability to haggle over the estates they wish to purchase. Their latest acquisition comes with a sitting tenant – who Madame Georges can’t get out of her head.

The Spell takes us to a Ukrainian town in the memory of a woman looking back to her childhood, and the visits she made to the family of her childhood friend Nina. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale of friendship, fortune telling and romance.

“On stormy days rainwater was collected in tubs, and all the women of the house washed their hair outdoors and then dried it in the sun; this is how I saw Klavdia Alexandrovna’s hair. It was a cloak of gold. I remained motionless, gazing in admiration at it. Her hair fell to her knees, its radiant colour shimmering in the light. Sofia Andreïevna was there too, half stretched out on a straw lounger. She was wearing a lilac dressing gown, open slightly on her heavy white chest. She caught me looking and started laughing. Her chin quivered slightly when she laughed and she had a kindly, gentle, wise expression.”

(The Spell)

The final story, Nativity concerns two sisters, one the youngest is about to be married, her elder sister about to give birth. Yvonne is blissfully content, her trousseau, the wedding gifts a fond fiancée – Brigitte, has reason to be less happy. Her marriage has been soured by her husband’s debts, infidelities and several pregnancies. Yvonne is shocked when her sister goes into labour – terrified by the sounds from the room next door.

In Confidence was a really excellent collection, Némirovsky’s writing is really very good, clear, insightful with sublime characterisation. I love her writing, and I am (again) determined to read more of her work soon.


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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.


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Thank you to Rosy Thornton for the review copy.

Sandlands is a gorgeous collection of short stories, rooted in the Suffolk countryside, among its people, villages and wildlife. These stories and the images they evoke will live and linger long in my mind. A white doe, appearing suddenly in the dark woods, blue winged butterflies, a barn owl watching over a decades old Oxo tin of love letters, bell ringers, the spirits which exist within a four-hundred-year old house. Rosy Thornton celebrates the flora and fauna of the county she must dearly love, the stories link subtly by landscape, and by the past and present which weaves in and out of these wonderful stories.

The collection opens with The White Doe, in which the appearance of an animal shrouded in folklore, is observed with reverence by Fran. Having lost her mother six months earlier, the woman whom once she would have shared her sightings, Fran reflects on their relationship, and their differing experiences of motherhood.

“There were more sightings after the first. Several times she glimpsed the herd in the woods, away to the left of the path. Twice they moved almost in step with Fran but along a parallel ride, separated from her by a band of silver birches; on another morning they had gathered to graze in a small open area, cleared in the autumn by volunteer coppicers. Always it was the white doe that was visible before her sisters, whose coats bore the same muted grey-brown hues as the winter woodland.”
(from The White Doe)

owlI would be hard pressed to choose just one favourite story, but The Watcher of Souls would certainly be a contender. Rebecca is living alone now since her husband’s death, walks frequently in the woods near her home. She has become aware of a feeling of being watched – an owl, a barn owl, camouflaged by its surroundings, appears to be watching. Rebecca seems drawn to the owl and the part of the wood it watches over. Rebecca takes to visiting the same spot every day, looking out for her owl. One day she finds an old Oxo tin of letters, which she is convinced is being watched over by the owl, Rebecca is captivated by the story the letters reveal.

Several stories take us into the past, people from the present finding and feeling echoes in the past. There is a slight supernatural element to one of two stories, which remind us how the past and present are so inextricably linked. In Nightingale’s Returns, Flavio travels from his home in Italy to visit Nightingale Farm, where seventy years earlier his father worked during the war. His father Salvatore, a farmer back home, had slipped easily and comfortably into the rhythm of agricultural life in England during those years, and after had never forgotten the farm or the nightingales that had given the farm its name. While the stories of three generations of women are explored in All the Flowers Gone, as Poppy a botanist goes in search of a rare flower on the side of an air base.

“Nightingale Farm the place was called, and his father said they were really there, back in those days, the birds that gave the place its name. Flavio remembered hearing nightingales at his grandparent’s house at San Cesario in the countryside of Emilia-Romagna – hearing them but never seeing one. They were anonymous little brown birds according to Papi, plain as Franciscan fustian, with a drabness quite at odds with the extravagance of their song, and they kept t the densest thickets, nesting deep in the heart of gorse or underscrub. There was, besides, some quality about their song which made its source and direction impossible to gauge.”
(from Nightingale’s Return)

The Witch Bottle is a wonderfully atmospheric story, looking back to the days of witch trials and burnings. A builder working on Kathy’s four-hundred-year old cottage finds a witch bottle while digging up the inglenook. A story of love, obsession and retribution, as Kathy draws closer to builder Nick, the two discover more about the story of Patience Spall a girl accused of murder by witchcraft in the seventeenth century. Curlew call the penultimate story in the collection, brings us back to the present. A young girl, spends her gap year, living as a companion to an elderly disabled woman. A keen naturalist, it is the chance of a year in a county of sand lands, reed beds and the spectacular wildlife that exist there, that drew her to such an old fashioned sounding occupation. Instantly charmed by the curlew call she can hear from her room, she is made welcome by her eccentric employer. In a series of emails to her mother, the story of her employer’s life is gradually revealed.

In other stories, we see ghosts meet bell ringers, the various patrons of The Ship pub, butterfly collectors and Mr Napier, the inhabitant of High House, caring for a fox rescued from the floods, and a runner struggling with her impending motherhood.

I love short stories, I have said that before I know, lots of times, and this collection contains many elements I really love. Strong characters brought to life, within a stunning English landscape, the natural world, folklore, and the past and present weave together seamlessly.

I am delighted to have discovered such a fabulous short story writer, I have had several people recommend me Rosy Thornton novels – which I will look out for, (though – *whispers* – I am trying not to acquire any more books till after I have completed #20booksofsummer – this book was not on my pile so doesn’t count toward my total. Back to it now.




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a dedicated man

Back in 2012 I read or re-read all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels along with other readers from the Librarything virago group for her centenary. I also read two of her five collections of short stories, saving the other three for a rainy day. I really hadn’t meant to leave it quite so long to get back to Elizabeth Taylor, one of my favourite writers, although it was nice to have these stories to look forward to. A Dedicated Man was the third of four collections published during Elizabeth Taylor’s lifetime, a fifth collection Dangerous Calm of previously unpublished pieces came out in the 1990’s.

Elizabeth Taylor is a superb short story writer, she observes her characters with a cool and practised eye, highlighting their absurdities, snobberies and everyday concerns.

Reviewing short stories is always a challenge I find, I almost always end up saying either too much or too little (generally the former), when all that’s wanted is a slight flavour. Therefore, I am not going to talk about each story – but pick out a few key pieces for particular attention.

Elizabeth Taylor shows us many sides of English middle class life, a world she understood from the inside. In this collection of twelve stories we meet both the middle aged and young, at home and abroad. In these stories Elizabeth Taylor considers the relationships between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives, between neighbours and that terrifying creature the Englishman/woman abroad. We meet a kept woman marooned in the upstairs of her home when the Thames is in Flood, an elderly woman, ignored, laughed at by her neighbours, befriends a young boy, and we meet Silcox, the dedicated man of the title as he manipulates his way into his dream job.

In the opening story; Girl Reading, we meet fifteen-year-old Etta, staying with her best friend’s family, during school holidays. Etta lives in a small dark terrace house with her single, working mother when not away at school. Her friend Sarah is part of a bigger, livelier family, their larger much smarter home is often filled with interesting guests. It is a world to which Etta desires more than anything to belong. Her mother is suspicious of this family, where it is obvious her daughter enjoys going, and so Etta is a little alarmed when her mother makes an unscheduled appearance during her latest visit.

“Mrs Salkeld had contrived the visit because she wanted to understand and hope to approve of her daughter’s friends. Seeing the lawns, the light reflected from the water. Later this large, bright room, and the beautiful poppy-seed cake the Hungarian cook had made for tea, she understood completely and felt pained. She could see then, with Etta’s eyes, their own dark, narrow house, and she thought of the lonely hours she spent there reading on days of imprisoning rain.”
(from Girl Reading)

In the title story A Dedicated man, Silcox, a waiter at a seaside hotel persuades his junior waitress colleague Edith to masquerade as his wife, in order that they can swap their positions at a tawdry holiday hotel for the Royal George Hotel in the home counties, well away from the sea. The two must learn how to live modestly together in the room provided to a married couple. Knowing little about each other, and living uncomfortably closely, all for the sake of a job which better suits their snobby pretensions . Silcox and Edith had resented waiting on loud mouthed, sunburned holiday makers in their indecent holiday clothing.

“In Edith’s new life there were one or two difficulties – one was trying to remember not to fidget with the wedding ring as if she were not used to wearing it, the another was being obliged to call Silcox ‘Maurice’. This she thought unseemly, like all familiarities, and to be constant in it required continual vigilance. He. Being her superior, had called her Edith from the start.”
(from A Dedicated Man)

In As if I Should Care we meet probably the least likeable character in the whole collection, and yet Rita is brilliantly drawn in all her unpleasant selfishness. A young girl of older parents, Rita learned a secret about her birth, some years earlier, which she has kept to herself and brooded on ever since. Over the years, Rita’s resentment towards her parents, and grandmother at home has grown. Now working at a hair salon, she spends her money sending off for suede jackets, goes out to dances, and fantasises about going to Canada. At home her father lies ill in his bedroom upstairs, Rita is aware that her mother has not revealed to him the seriousness of his illness. With shocking callousness and unconcern, Rita finds a way to use this to her own advantage.

Two stories, The Voices and In the Sun depict the English on holiday abroad. In the first story, Laura alone in her hotel room listens to the voices of the two women in the room next door. Through the snatches of their conversation she lives their holiday vicariously, comparing it to her own rather unfulfilled experience. In the next story, In the Sun,two couples, the Troughtons and the Crouches meet on holiday in the sun, swap stories and embark on that kind of temporary holiday acquaintance which will end with the holiday itself. Deirdre and Bunny Wallace; a third couple arrive and become the focus of speculation by the first two couples. Their observations and surmises are based solely on their own prejudices and snobberies. Deirdre is similarly taken to passing judgement on her fellow guests.

“People come out here,’ said Deirdre, glaring at the bodies about her, ‘and bake themselves all day, only glad if they can go back home the colour that they punish other people for being.”
‘So true’ said Bunny.
Without discussing where they should sit, they moved apart from the others and spread towels out on the sand. Bunny removed his hat and shirt, and went trotting down to the sea, his crooked arms jerking back and forth like a long-distance runner’s.”
(from In the Sun)

Such brilliantly astute observations like this of how people behave in different situations, for me show Elizabeth Taylor’s genius. She allows her reader to develop their own relationship with the characters and story, in the way she stands slightly removed from them. These stories are simply brilliant, compulsively readable and make me want to re-read all those exceptional novels again. Before I do though, there are two more volumes of stories I have yet to read.


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