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Popping up here on Christmas Eve to wish you all a very happy, peaceful Christmas, however you might be spending it.

Time to tell you about a delightful little book I read last weekend, while I was hurtling about finishing Christmas shopping and meeting up with friends. A Christmas Memory is a slight little hardback that I bought last year, and somehow didn’t get around to reading. This Christmas keepsake volume from the Modern Library was published in 2007 though the three stories were first published in 1956, 1982 and 1967 respectively.

I have read quite a number of Truman Capote short stories, and so knowing what a good short story writer he was, I had looked forward to finally reading the three stories in this volume. I wasn’t disappointed, these will definitely be stories I return to, perfect for the time of year.

There always seems to be a heavily autobiographical element to Capote’s writing, perhaps it is the way he writes so nostalgically about his Alabama childhood. Certainly, these stories also appear to be heavily autobiographical. The three stories are linked by the character of Buddy, who lives with the Alabama relatives of his mother, and who has a particularly close relationship with an elderly cousin named Sook.

In A Christmas Memory, Buddy looks back upon a childhood Christmas in the company of his cousin, his special friend. The setting is Alabama in the 1930s, Buddy is just seven, his distant cousin is in her sixties, describing her with affection and the kind of matter of fact honesty peculiar to children.

“Her face is remarkable – not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-coloured and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together – well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy in memory of a boy who was formally her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

It is a story which celebrates a Southern country Christmas, the joy of friendship and giving. Finally, touching on, inevitably perhaps, the loss that comes with love.

One Christmas describes how Buddy – aged just six – is packed off alone to visit his father in New Orleans. Buddy is terrified to travel so far on his own, having to spend Christmas away from Sook his special friend. He steps off the bus expecting there to be snow in New Orleans – so far away from Alabama.

“I don’t know what scared me most, the thunder, the sizzling zigzags of lightning that followed it – or my father. That night, when I went to bed, it was still raining. I said my prayers and I prayed that I would soon be home with Sook to kiss me good-night.”

His father is a not a man much used to small children, and through the bemused eyes of his young son we see a hard drinking, cynic, a man quite able to provide lots of Christmas gifts – but who finds a relationship with his son more difficult.

In The Thanksgiving Visitor; Buddy and Sook are anticipating the annual Thanksgiving feast – where the family that Buddy lives with, are inundated with a whole host of far flung relatives who come for the big day every year. Despite his youth, Buddy has learned to hate – much to Sook’s disapproval. A local boy Old Henderson, a boy a few years older than Buddy, kept back in second grade due to his lack of educational prowess.

“Of course it wasn’t that I hated school; what I hated was Odd Henderson. The torments he contrived! For instance, he used to wait for me in the shadows under a water oak that darkened an edge of the school grounds; in his hand he held a paper sack stuffed with prickly cockleburs collected on his way to school. There was no sense in trying to outrun him, for he was quick as a coiled snake; like a coiled snake; like a rattler, he struck, slammed me to the ground and, his slitty eyes gleeful, rubbed the burrs into my scalp. Usually a group of kids ganged around to titter, or pretend to; they didn’t really think it funny; but Odd made them nervous and ready to please.”

Buddy never imagines that Old Henderson might have other talents. Sook is determined to teach Buddy something about giving people a chance – and so – much to Buddy’s horror – invites Old Henderson to the family, Thanksgiving feast. The day is destined to be a memorable one.

This entire book could easily be read in a couple of hours, or less – I wasn’t able to read it in one sitting last Saturday – I was too busy – but it proved a lovely companion to a busy day of Christmas preparations. Tender, powerful and nostalgic Capote’s festive stories are a real treat.

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Whether she is telling the story of a newly married couple, a level crossing keeper and his badly disfigured niece, incestuous siblings or the oddly magical world of elves and fairies, Sylvia Townsend Warner is a consummate storyteller. Her writing is beautiful, sometimes surprising, frequently rooted in an England long vanished from view – she is both witty and perceptive. She explores with great tenderness, the passions, oddities and quirks of all sorts of people, and there is sometimes a suggestion of delicious irreverence.

“She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘There! That’s as much as I shall dress’
‘You look very improper.’
‘I am improper.’ Her young voice was quelling.
Love warmed her. It did not warm him. He moved nearer the gas fire and repelled the thought of his overcoat. He would soon be in it and on his way home. But politeness requires that after making love one must make a little conversation.”
(The Forgone Conclusion – 1961)

During her writing life Sylvia Townsend Warner produced an incredible number of short stories – they appear to run to something like eighteen volumes – though some stories may appear in more than one volume. This selected Stories collection first published in 1989 contain forty stories from across those collections dating from between 1932 and 1977. Through them one can see the author’s own slightly shifting perspectives as the world around her changed – culminating, at the end of the collection with her foray into fantasy with some of the stories from her world of fairies. As probably happens with all large collections of stories there were a very small number that didn’t quite hit the spot – though only four or five in the entire collection – overall this is a superb collection, and could be for some a brilliant introduction to the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

I have always found it very difficult to write reviews of story collections, but this one is particularly difficult. Firstly, I read it over a two-week period, setting it to one side for my book group read of Warner’s Lolly Willowes – (I know you wait ages for a Sylvia Townsend Warner review and…) and then Another Little Christmas Murder. Secondly of course, forty stories are far, far too many to write about in detail. As ever all I can hope to do is give a very slight flavour, helped along by a few quotes from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s delightful prose.

The collection opens with A Love Match, the story of a brother and sister, so damaged by the horrors of that war to end all wars, that they turn to one another for comfort, companionship and love. It’s a union which lasts years. Incest – the great taboo – it’s really quite the opener.

The Level Crossing a wonderfully atmospheric story of an old, country level crossing keeper. A former Londoner – he still recalls with a sharp nostalgia the comings and goings of the London streets of his past. His life is now set to the rhythm of the railway, a railway timetable now disrupted by war.

“With a kind of homesickness he would recall the night turn in the goods-yard, the figures under the raw arc lights, his mates shouting, the soft whine of the wind along the metals and how once, seeing a train come in with a white crust still lying on the tarpaulins, he had said to himself: It’s snowing in the country. And picture was in his mind, a picture based on a Christmas card; a white landscape, a church spire, a sunset glowing between bars of cloud like the coals in a grate.”
(The Level Crossing 1943)

He watches with concern, his niece, distressingly disfigured by facial burns, she works in silence alongside her uncle. The two make for an odd family unit – turned on their heads by a group of soldiers billeted with them for a few weeks. It is a beautifully memorable little story.

In one of my favourite stories; But at the Stroke of Midnight, a woman walks away from her home and her dull inattentive husband. Lucy completely disappears without a world and assuming her cousin’s identity, adopts a cat and takes a cottage. It is a story about the finding of freedom, of throwing off the bonds of dull domesticity, but there is quiet despair here. Lucy is no Lolly Willowes though, and when the shine wears off this new life things take an altogether sadder turn.

Cats do play a big role in much of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fiction – she wrote a whole collection called The Cat’s Cradle though none of those appear in this collection. In another sad story Total Loss; a child’s beloved old pet cat must be put to sleep – her parent’s send her off on a day out with relatives while the merciful, necessary deed is done by the vet. It’s an especially cruel piece of deceit with which I am sure even none pet owners can empathise. cats

In other stories we see an elderly musician living for others – as he carefully creeps away from his own home, upon arriving home unexpectedly and discovering his cook in his bed with a married man. A bored, bitter woman stitches a widow’s quilt. In One Thing Leading to Another, a housekeeper to a couple of priests finds all kinds of unexpected things follow when she accidentally puts snuff in the priests’ curry. This is a tongue in cheek, little story, with an ending which made me smile. A Red Carnation sees the disillusionment of a German soldier sent to help the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.

“Portents accompany the death of monarchs. A white horse trots slowly along the avenue, a woman in streaming wet garments is seen to enter the throne room, vanishes, and leaves wet footmarks; red mice are caught in palace mousetraps. For several weeks five black swans had circled incessantly above the castle of Elfhame. It was ninety decades since their last appearance; then there were four of them, waiting for Queen Tiphaine’s predecessor. Now they were five, and waited for Tiphaine. Mute as a shell cast up on the beach, she lay in her chamber watching the antics of her pet monkey.”
(The Five Black Swans 1977)

The last few stories come from the Kingdoms of Elfin collection. Here Warner played around with fantasy, taking us to the world of elves and fairies. We learn their lore, meet the Fairy Queens and changelings. These stories are fantastic in every sense of the word, weird, wonderful colourful and extraordinarily imagined.

The Libraything Virago group have been reading the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner during December, and you can read Jane’s review of A Cat’s Cradle here (which I have just bought a copy of).

 

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wilderness tips

Having so loved reading the brilliant Oryx and Crake at the start of the month for the Librarything Virago’s group author of the month – I was keen to read more Atwood. I chose this story collection, which somehow, I hadn’t even heard of until quite recently.

Wilderness Tips contains ten superbly crafted stories, in which life doesn’t always turn out quite how it was expected to, consequences must be faced, time flies as it does in life. All of this within the confines of ordinary life. I’m not going to describe in detail every story – as ten is rather a lot to write about – so I shall instead attempt to give a flavour of the collection.

The stories – some of which span years, even decades – focus mainly on the lives of women, and the men who inhabit their lives. Toronto, its environs and the Canadian woods are the settings for these stories – some taking place in slightly more rural settings – two of the stories taking in the world of the summer camp. I have always known, that had I been born in Canada or the US I would have simply despised the summer camp. Yet just as the world of the hotel or the boarding school is deeply fascinating and wreathed in stories as they are places that pull unrelated people together – so is the North American summer camp similarly fascinating. I wonder if that explains the fact that these two stories, True Trash and Death by Landscape were among my favourites.

True Trash is the story which opens the collection, and a group of young boys with some binoculars spy on a group of waitresses as they sunbathe. The waitresses – subject to much speculation and fantasy – are only three or four years older than the boys – lie in the sun and read romance stories in trashy magazines. Here Atwood recreates the atmosphere of the camp beautifully, the sexual tensions between the boys and these older girls, that heady, complicated time when one is somehow stranded between childhood and adulthood. The story of the consequences of that summer continue many years later – but I naturally can’t say too much about that.

“Between two oval hills of pink granite there’s a small crescent of beach. The boys, wearing their bathing suits (as they never do on canoe trips but only around the camp where they might be seen by girls), are doing their laundry, standing up to their knees and swabbing their wet T-shirts and underpants with yellow bars of Sunlight soap. This only happens when they run out of clothes, or when the stench of dirty socks in the cabin becomes too overpowering. Darce, the counsellor is supervising, stretched out on a rock, taking the sun on his already tanned torso and smoking a fag. It’s forbidden to smoke in front of the campers but he knows this bunch won’t tell. To be on the safe side he’s furtive it, holding the cigarette down close to the rock and sneaking quick puffs.”

(True Trash)

The second camp story – actually the fifth story in, Death by Landscape – in which a woman recalls a mysterious and shocking incident at her summer camp years before. Atwood’s description of a traditional old camp, little changed since the start of the century, and the remote, mountainous countryside surrounding it is perfect. In her apartment, where she now lives alone, Lois has a collection of landscape paintings, which take her back to the world of that camp.

“She bought them because she wanted them. She wanted something that was in them. Although she could not have said at the time what it was. It was not peace: she does not find them peaceful in the least. Looking at them fills her with a wordless unease. Despite the fact that there are no people in them or even animals, it’s as if there is something, or someone, looking back out.”

(Death by Landscape)

Several of the women in these stories are professional women – journalists or lawyers -making their way in the world of men. In Hairball, for instance, Kat, a magazine editor, undergoes surgery to remove a growth – there’s a horrifying description of it – which I shall spare you. Kat takes her tumour home in a bottle of formaldehyde. Kat’s married lover; Gerald – takes the opportunity of her absence from work to ease her out – a betrayal which takes her breath away. Kat takes a terrible, stomach churning revenge. It is a quite brilliant story, slightly disturbing, but with a superb sting in the tail. In Uncles; Susanna, a journalist has her success ruined by the poisonous jealously of a male colleague – the uncles of the title the men whose praise and approval she worked so hard to achieve when she was a girl. The uncles had protected and provided for Susanna and her mother, and Susana can’t help but search for uncle like figures as she starts out in her career. In Weight, another professional woman – a lawyer sleeps around, seeming always to be making omelettes for other women’s husbands. She remembers Molly – who she was at college with – they shared similar dreams of fighting feminism and achieving professional greatness. Now our narrator, engineers a meeting with a rich man – she is only interested in his money – though it isn’t for herself she wants it – but for a shelter for battered women – to be called Molly’s Place.

In the title story Wilderness Tips, we witness the strange dynamic between three sisters. George, once a Hungarian refugee – has been successful in Canada and married one of the sisters. George has cheated on his wife with one of her sisters – and is now dancing around the third – quite successful in this too it seems. George’s past very different to his present – which he can’t help but recall as his wife Prue shows of the effect of her red bandannas.

“‘It’s the forties look,” she says to George, hand on her hip, doing a pirouette. “Rosie the Riveter. From the war. Remember her?”
George, whose name is not really George, does not remember. He spent the forties rooting through garbage bag heaps and begging, and doing other things unsuitable for a child. He has a dim memory of some film star posed on a calendar tattering on a latrine wall. Maybe this is the one Prue means. He remembers for an instant his intense resentment of the bright, ignorant smile, the well-fed body. A couple of buddies had helped him take her apart with the rusty blade from a kitchen knife they’d found somewhere in the rubble. He does not consider telling any of this to Prue.”

(wilderness Tips)

Wilderness Tips is a wonderful collection which beautifully explores aspects of Canadian life, between the sixties and the nineties.

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Oh dear, my tbr does have a habit of getting rather out of control, and this book demonstrates that perfectly. A good friend bought me this for my birthday – no, not my last birthday, the one before that! I generally love short stories, and my love of Jane Eyre – the inspiration behind the collection – is probably quite well known.

The precise inspiration for all the stories in the book – published for Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary in 2016 – is that most famous of final lines; reader, I married him. A few weeks after being presented with this by my friend – a book I was delighted to receive – I attended a talk at Hay Festival 2016 in which Tracey Chevalier and a couple of authors whose work appears in the collection talked about the concept of the book, and read extracts from the stories. There are twenty-one stories in this collection – which bring together many famous names and a variety of voices from modern fiction. Jane Gardam, Helen Dunmore, Salley Vickers, Elif Shafak, Susan Hill and Lionel Shriver to name but a few. I was excited about this collection – despite having left it on the shelf so long – I felt it could only be wonderful. Umm… I was wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, I did enjoy several stories very much, but not all of them, several left me rather cold, some I’m sorry to say I could barely remember just a day or so after reading them.

Generally, I am a fan of short stories – and I often read them one after the other after another – rather than dipping in and out while reading other books. I know some people think that is the wrong way to approach a collection – but it usually works fine for me. Whether that was part of the problem I don’t know, but I think that I like collections to have a cohesive feel to them – and I had definitely expected that of this one, but somehow, I didn’t feel there was that kind of cohesiveness.

The scenes, characters and settings are very varied – Pembrokeshire, London, a lido out of season, a small Canadian town, Turkey, Harlem, in these places we meet the married, the about to be married, those seeking romance, a new mother, a widow, and immigrants. The title story by Susan Hill, tells the story of Edward and Mrs Simpson from her point of view, it’s a story of love, loss and sacrifice. A story that we think we know, but Wallis puts a slightly new spin on it. In To Hold, Joanna Briscoe tells the story of woman who marries several times, her story is rooted in the British countryside – Briscoe’s was one of several new voices for me.

“The espaliered walls, the choke of cabbages, ended in a gate that led straight through to where the gorse was webbed with nests and the merlins soared to Gibbeswick Fell. Tay-Mosby hiked daily through the tussocks accompanied by his dog, Ranger Boy, surmounted the head of the waterfall as he chopped at thorns with his stick, walked by the beck to where the quarry was, the Pennine Way, the views further west to witch country.”
(To Hold – Joanna Briscoe)

One of my favourite stories were Behind the Mountain by Evie Wyld. A woman struggles to settle into her new life in a Canadian town, following her husband’s appointment as bank manager. Her home, and its furnishings bear the scars of previous occupants, and a dinner for her husband’s colleague causes some anxiety. As the woman misses her son, at school in England and dreams of English beaches, her husband exerts a quiet tyranny over how his toast should be prepared. On a visit to the store for food, she meets Old Annie – a mountain woman whose bandaged head tells of her recent encounter with a bear. Old Annie – and the mountain which looms over their house, speak of another kind of life.

“She sits in the car and watches Old Annie cross the street and sling the package in the back of a green truck. She moves with the confidence of an animal.

She follows. There are no other cars on the road this morning, and though she catches Old Annie’s eye in the rearview mirror, she still follows. They reach the dump and she stops, watches Old Annie drive on, a bear swivelling its head towards her as she goes. Their eye contact is broken. Soon, the green truck is a beetle kicking up dust in the distance, the top of the mountain she lives behind a faded pink.”
(Behind the Mountain – Evie Wyld)

Alongside these stories we have three stories that feature the characters from Jane Eyre itself – Grace Poole Her Testimony by Helen Dunmore – it does pretty much what it says on the tin as they say. In this story Grace Poole defends Bertha Mason, calling into question the generally accepted view of Jane Eyre. In The Mirror by Francine Prose, we have an imagining of what Jane’s married life might have been after that famous novel ends. While in Reader, she married me by Salley Vickers, Mr Rochester reveals a long-kept secret. As a fan of Jane Eyre these were the stories I was looking forward to most, but although they are all very readable, I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t recognise my small, pale friend Jane Eyre in any of them, true Jane is a complex character, we see different things in her at different points in our lives. As we encounter Charlotte Bronte’s most loved heroine we can read her character in a variety of ways, she is much more than small, plain and poor – we know that. These stories certainly pay homage to the variety of ways we can read Jane Eyre; however, I didn’t feel that I was reading about the same person. Salley Vickers Rochester wasn’t my Mr R, and while Helen Dunmore’s Grace Poole is less of a problem, I probably liked the Salley Vickers story the most of the three.

Overall, I was disappointed by these stories – which is a shame given that it was a gift. I still like the premise – but something didn’t quite gel for me.

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an unrestored woman

So just days after reviewing Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – I have another collection of short stories to tell you about. An Unrestored Woman a very powerful collection, first published last year in the USA, this new paperback edition apparently timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the India into what is became the separate nations of India and Pakistan – perhaps that is a coincidence though I suspect not.

“We leave. We leave the places we’re born, the places we’re meant to die, and we wander into the world as defenceless as children. Against such wilderness, such desert.”

For all the stories in this collection take the ramifications of Partition as their theme. However, not all the stories take place in 1947 – in fact Shobha Rao’s stories show how the effects of Partition continued to be felt many, many years after the events surrounding Partition itself.

There are twelve stories in An Unrestored Woman, six pairs of linked stories. This pairing of stories is particularly clever, allowing us an alternative viewpoint – the two halves creating a more complex whole across the two stories. Shobhan Rao writes beautifully of displacement, love, ambitious seduction and revenge. Characters commit murder, take on cross gender identities, embark upon perilous journeys and suffer horrible abuses. I found many of the male characters to be either thoroughly unpleasant or cowardly weak. It is probably unsurprising that it is generally women and children who suffer the worst abuses, rape, coercion and abduction feature. I didn’t find Rao’s writing to be in any way gratuitous – there was a sensitive, understanding to her depiction of these terrible events – an honesty.

In these stories; we meet women trapped into early marriages with men who treat them as objects. Those sold into the sex industry, and the unrestored women who having been abducted during the violent upheaval of Partition – are forcibly returned to the homes where they are no longer wanted. We meet a child who makes a miraculous escape when a train is attacked, an elderly man with dementia confusing the past with the present. A woman in 1990s America meets an elderly Englishman who served in India during Partition, and a young man working for the Indian Geographical Society, takes the opportunity to advance his romantic aspirations when he goes to a village to survey the border between India and East Pakistan.

“He returned an hour later and told her he’s secured passage for her on a bus headed for a nearby camp. It was set up by the Indian government, he said.
‘For what?’ she asked
‘For items that are useless.’ He said ‘Like you’”

The collection opens with the title story An Unrestored Woman in which Neela, believing the husband she never cared for is dead, finds herself briefly in a camp for ‘Refugees and Unrestored Women’. Here Neela meets Renu, and for the short time they are together, the two are inseparable. In The Merchant’s Mistress, Renu is an ambitious servant, seducing both her master and mistress, on her way to a better life.

Jenkins working for the Imperial Police in the story of the same name, finds himself falling dangerously in love. Fifty years later we meet Jenkins again working as an apartment building doorman in the US, in Unleashed. A young woman turns to drink when she uncovers a terrible betrayal. In her misery, she recalls her childhood and adolescence in the company of her sister.

Blindfold tells the devastating story of a child stolen for the sex industry and the carefully plotted revenge the girl visits upon the cruel madam who has held her hostage for years. In the The Lost Ribbon, we have a Hindu woman ‘recovered’ from her Pakistani captor, who makes an unbelievably appalling decision.

A young cartographer in The Opposite of Sex, is desperate to marry the daughter of a wealthy local man, he realises that moving the dividing line between what will soon be East Pakistan and India through the village, he can effectively ruin the father of the girl he dreams of marrying, and so improve his own chances of winning her. Many years later, that young man’s boss Alok Debnath is now an elderly man suffering from dementia in Such a mighty river. As Alok goes in search of a local prostitute whose services he has used regularly, his mind keeps returning to the past when he was first married to his beloved late wife. Unknown to him, Alok is vulnerable and in danger.

“My wife comes into the room, shutting out the sun as she closes the door, and lays the wad of bills on the table in front of me. I can’t look at her. I want to feel shame but I only feel a thin pleasure, like a fine layer of skin, puckered and white and soulless, floating on cooling milk. On another shore, perhaps, the desert has an ashen end; and forests are merely silent folded wings. On that shore poverty doesn’t have an animal stink. And when we touch the face of another, we draw onto their skin a moonlit path, and not the metallic rust of our weakness and our fear.”

During the upheaval of Partition, a married couple embark upon a journey to Mirpur Khas in The Road to Mirpur Khas. The impractical, naïve husband frequently annoys his much sharper wife. Having had the meagre store of money stolen on the road the wife is forced to prostitute herself to aid their journey and their very survival. In the The Memsahib, set I think some years before the events of 1947, a young sweeper becomes obsessed with the imperious daughter of the British family in whose home he and his mother serve. When his attentions are shrugged away, he decides upon a peculiar and terrible revenge.

In Kavitha and Mustafa, a train packed with refugees is attacked, the passengers robbed and beaten, a Hindu woman and a Muslim boy manage to escape by helping one another is a desperate bid to survive. In Curfew, the granddaughter of that boy – now grown up, and living in Britain – goes on holiday with her husband. The couple are still struggling with a terrible grief, their marriage itself at risk.

There is a relentlessness to these stories, but there is also a lot that is beautifully observed and compellingly told. Rao is never sentimental, there is an honesty to her stories which goes some way to telling the rich, complex story of two historically and geographically linked countries.

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stone mattress

I love short stories, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood short stories since I read Bluebeard’s Egg at least twenty-five years ago. I also hadn’t realised that there were a few collections out there that I could have been reading. At the same time that I bought this collection, I bought Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel Hag-seed – and was really debating which to read first. I am so glad I chose this collection because it so completely captivated me – and made me realise I really haven’t read enough Atwood the last few years. My re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale  a few months ago was immensely positive of course – but something about The Heart Goes Last didn’t completely work for me (I’m sure it’s just me) – so to be so blown away by another Atwood book felt quite exciting.

Stone Mattress nine wicked tales is highly addictive, sharply observed and brilliantly imagined, I gobbled them up in two days. These are the sort of stories I don’t want to say too much about – you will all just have to read them.

The first three stories; Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady are connected, Atwood considers matters of ageing in the stories of a group of people who first knew each other back in the 1960s.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlights it looks so beautiful, like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment.”

We begin with Constance, in Alphinland – a renowned fantasy writer – who created the fictional world of Alphinland many, many years earlier while she lived with Gavin an aspiring, serious poet. Now she is an old woman, mourning her husband in the midst of an ice storm, trying to look after herself the best she can, she still talks to her husband Ewan, it keeps him close. Constance makes a hazardous journey to the nearby shop, scatters cat litter on the steps outside – all the time remembering Gavin, who cheated on her with Marjorie, and laughed at her work. Constance was probably my favourite character in the whole book.

In Revenant we meet Gavin, a pretentious, revered poet, now living with his third wife Reynold, thirty years his junior. He remembers Constance as the one that got away, about who he wrote some of his best-known poems. Gavin; pretending great nonchalance – thrives on a bit of attention, so is ready to really enjoy himself when a student turns up to interview him.

“Why couldn’t the two of them have gone on and on forever? Himself and Constance, sun and moon, each one of them shining, though in different ways. Instead of which he’s here, forsaken by her, abandoned. In time, which fails to sustain him. In space, which fails to cradle him.”

In Dark Lady, Constance, Marjorie and Reynolds are reunited at Gavin’s funeral. There are of course truths to be told, and memories of the past re-examined. Atwood’s depiction of the funeral, with its folk singers and poetry is pure gold.

The stories in this collection vary in length, but they have a delicate, dark heart. Lusus Naturae is the shortest, a modern take on the vampire stories of the past, innocence and superstition and misunderstanding clash, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

“Now I was dead, I was freer. No one but my mother wa allowed into my room, my former room as they called it. They told the neighbours they were keepimg it as a shrine to my memory. They hung a picture of me on the door, a picture made when I still looked human. I didn’t know what I looked like now, I avoided mirrors.”

The Freeze-dried groom, is darkly humorous – and if you ever watch that TV programme from the US; Storage Wars (I can’t say I have ever understood the appeal)– you will never look at those storage units in the same light. A man who the reader has reason to distrust for other reasons, buys several container units – and is quite unprepared for what he finds inside.

I dream of Zenia with the bright red teeth reintroduces us to Charis, Ros and Tony from The Robber Bride – a book I know I enjoyed very much, but I’m embarrassed to admit I can remember nothing about – though it is a while since I read it.

We meet another writer in The dead hand loves you, a man who years earlier, as a young, penniless student, wrote a horror story which became a huge bestseller – now considered a gothic classic. However, the writer entered into a profit sharing deal at the time with his three housemates, a deal he has had cause to regret for years.

The title story of the collection; Stone mattress was one of my favourites, it concerns an act of terrible (but rather perfect) revenge, when a woman meets the man who raped in in high school – on an arctic cruise.

The premise of Torching the dusties is rather disturbing – nursing homes find themselves under siege as society outside starts to break down. An elderly couple, one a woman with Charles Bonnet syndrome, come together to do all they can to survive.

Throughout this collection Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply wonderful, gorgeous description, dark humour and complex characters explored with feeling.

A few days after finishing this amazing collection of short stories, the BBC broadcast a wonderful programme in which Alan Yentob talks to Margaret Atwood – it was an extraordinarily lovely programme which I have recorded to keep and watch again. It certainly made me want to read the books of Margaret Atwood that I haven’t managed to get around to (perhaps not the Maddaddam trilogy as I am not great with Sci-fi – those who know better tell me if I am wrong), and re-read all those I read twenty five/thirty years ago. I still have Hag-Seed to read and have now ordered Wilderness Tips.

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cof

Translated from the French by Sandra Smith (2007)

Women in translation month continues apace, and I am always amazed by the array of books and writers that I have never heard of popping up particularly in my Twitter timeline. Just the sheer number of people joining in with this event is impressive.

witmonth2017My second read for #witmonth was a very slender little book I found in a charity shop while out with my sister. Irène Némirovsky the author of the acclaimed posthumously published Suite Française and many other novels and short stories died in Auschwitz in 1942, already a successful author, the two stories contained in this volume were published in 1930 and 1931 respectively.

These two stories are quite different, one the story of family of nouveau riche and the revenge taken by an unhappy teenage girl on her nasty, selfish mother. The second tale tells the story of a faithful Russian family servant, who in her advancing years follows the family she has served, as they emigrate to Paris.

In La Bal, we meet the Kampf family. The Kampfs have recently become very wealthy, and Madame Kampf in particular is keen to join the ranks of Parisian society. She is very aware of her working-class background, eager to shake off the taint of these roots she is very sensitive about her past. Madame Kampf plans to throw a sumptuous ball, to which she will invite all of society, the wealthy and the titled in order to gain the acceptance she craves.

“A ball… My God, was it possible that there could take place – here, right under her nose – this splendid thing she vaguely imagined as a mixture of wild music, intoxicating perfumes, dazzling evening gowns, words of love whispered in some isolated alcove, as dark and cool as a hidden chamber… and that she could be sent to bed that night, like any other night, at nine o’clock, like a baby?”

Antoinette is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Kampfs, there is little, if any love in her life, her father concerned with business and keeping his fractious wife happy, while her mother; Rosine’s unpredictable moods and obsession with society blind her to her daughter’s unhappiness. Antoinette is desperate to go to the ball, knowing other girls are sometimes presented to society at around her age, but her mother scoffs at the very idea. Antoinette has little joy in her life – daily, hated music lessons with the dreadful Mademoiselle Isabelle – a cousin of the Kampfs, to which she is accompanied by her governess Miss Betty. While Antoinette endures her lesson, Miss Betty goes off to meet her young lover. Antoinette is lonely and bitter and in a fit of teenage pique decides to exact her own terrible revenge.

I have read other mother daughter stories by Némirovsky especially in the collection Dimanche and other stories, and although I rather loved the story and thought it very compelling, it is not the best example of the type from this writer. Antoinette is not explored as well as I would have liked, she is also rather unsympathetic, which I don’t personally mind, but a little more sympathy might have made the conflict work better.

Snow in Autumn transports us to Russia, and the home of the Karine family around the time of the Russian Revolution. Tatiana Ivanovna is the ageing faithful servant who has served the family since the time Nicolas Alexandrovitch was a baby. After fifty-one years, she has seen two generations of the family grow up, watched her beloved Nicolas Alexandrovitch marry Hélène (after she cheated on her first husband with him), and dearly loved the four children born to them.

The revolution brings great change, hardship, tragedy and flight. Tatiana guards the family home alone, while revolutionaries rampage through the countryside, one member of the family is shot, and life changes forever. The family flee to Paris, and despite her years, Tatiana follows them. The life the family lead now is a long way from the life they lived in Russia, poverty is an accepted part of their lives now. As time goes on, the situation begins to take quite a toll on Tatiana, who longs for the snows of her homeland, seeing the landscapes that she loves in her mind, she longs for a time when she will be able to return.

“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them”

This second story is probably the better of the two, certainly it is more nuanced and the character of Tatiana as well as being more likeable than Antoinette, is particularly well explored. However, I enjoyed both very much, and yet again am reminded how much of Némirovsky’s work I have yet to explore.

Currently reading my third Witmonth book Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó which is brilliant.

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