Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

My second read for this year’s ~DDMreadingweek was the story collection The Doll, a collection of mainly very early short stories by Daphne du Maurier. These previously lost stories brought back by Virago are very good. No matter how early in her writing life they were penned they show du Maurier’s remarkable talent at the short story form. As Polly Samson writes in her introduction to this edition, many of the themes in these stories were very much du Maurier’s own preoccupations at this time. She had escaped the claustrophobia of her father’s house in London, for Cornwall – her relationship with her parents was complex and often distressing. These are stories of obsession, innocence lost, and human frailties.

The collection opens with The East Wind, set on a small, isolated island, an island rarely come across by sailors. The inhabitants are almost childlike in their innocence – generations of inbreeding have left them a quiet, peaceful people, who get on with their daily lives and think nothing of what might lie beyond their shores. The main occupation is fishing, the sea and the island’s tiny harbour a focal point for the island. One day, the wind changes, and with the storm comes a ship, obliged to weigh anchor in the harbour, the men from the ship come ashore and make themselves known to the island’s population. The sailors bring brandy with them, they also bring lust and sexual desires, never felt before in this little Eden are unleashed leading to violence and death.

The title story The Doll was apparently written when Daphne du Maurier was just twenty. It’s definitely the creepiest story in this collection – it seems surprising that this young woman would have conceived of this story in the 1920s. It makes the reader wonder what was going on in her life around the time. A waterlogged notebook is washed ashore. The notebook tells the story of a jealousy and obsession. The woman at the heart of the story is called Rebecca – that name creating a frisson of recognition where Daphne du Maurier is concerned, but of course she isn’t that Rebecca – that is all in the future. The narrator of the story develops an obsession with Rebecca – who he meets at a party. However, even at their first meeting there is something darker in the narrator’s first thoughts of her.

“Her throat was very long and thin, like a swan’s. I remember thinking how easy it would be to tighten the scarf and strangle her. I imagined her face when dying – her lips parted, and the enquiring look in her eyes – they would show white, but she would not be afraid. All this in the space of a moment, and while she was talking to me. I could drag very little from her. She was a violinist apparently, an orphan and lived alone in Bloomsbury.”

(The Doll)

Yet it is Rebecca’s own obsession that we are most surprised by. A life sized, mechanical doll called Julio. The images that du Maurier leaves us with here are rather disturbing, she creates atmosphere so well though. A story that may give the reader chills, but a fascinating, memorable early piece, nonetheless.

Du Maurier’s subjects vary considerably. In Now to God the Father – a society clergyman, very definitely doesn’t practice what he preaches and a young woman will suffer for it. While in the stories Piccadilly and Mazie – we are witness to the depressing realities of a life of prostitution. In Tame Cat – a young woman travels home, excited to be finally grown up. Now she believes life will begin. She is hurt therefore, and rather bewildered when her mother begins to see her as a rival – and Uncle John, who her school friends had once joked was her mother’s tame cat, is not quite what she thought. It is a rude awakening.

“And the chair was still empty, and the room looked lifeless and dull, and she was a little girl whose mouth turned down at the corners, who bit the ends of her hair, who wriggled with hunched shoulders, sniffing in a hankie, ‘It isn’t fair.”

(Nothing Hurts for Long)

One story I especially liked was Nothing Hurts for Long. A woman awaits the return of her husband after three long months working away. She begins to prepare herself in the morning, excited and happy, her pet canary sings cheerily in its cage. She imagine exactly how her husband’s home coming will be, arranges with her cook what food will be eaten. Then a friend rings up in great distress, and she runs over to console her, only half there, constantly thinking of the evening and her husband’s return. Later she will have cause to remember her friend and her words when her husband’s home coming isn’t as she had envisioned it. He arrives much later, has already eaten. Suddenly there’s a sense of everything being changed.

Du Maurier also shows us several incompatible relationships. In Frustration, a young couple marry in some haste, but then life isn’t as easy as they imagine, and really, they end up no better off than before. In A Difference in Temperament a young couple clearly love one another, yet she can’t bear for him to be away from, starting to imagine all sorts, while he is resentful of her needing him to be always there. We see the beginning of a relationship, that heady, excited middle bit and then its sudden collapse in the story Week-End. Similarly in And His Letters Grew Colder we see all stages of an illicit relationship – through to its bitter end, through the letters of the man. It’s a clever little story, because although we don’t hear from the woman herself, there’s enough context for us to almost hear her between the lines.

There’s a strange dream-like quality to The Happy Valley – in which a woman experiences a recurring feeling of déjà vu. Her recurring dream starts to feel as if it is coming true – and the world around her begins to have an other worldly feel to it. The final story in the collection is The Limpet – originally published in 1959, it is a much later story than the rest. It concerns a woman who blames the ill fortune that she feels has followed her through life – on her habit of always putting others before herself. Of course, as the reader sees immediately she has done no such thing. She is completley unaware however of how manipulative she has always been, and how ultimately she has ruined the lives of several people around her.

As early stories go, these really are good, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Here du Maurier shows us many flashes of the writer she would become, and all in all it was a pretty good start.

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Angela Carter’s Book of Wayward Girls and Wicked Women was first published by Virago in 1986, but I bought this newer version after Christmas with my book vouchers. A collection of subversive tales by and about women, extoling the virtues of disruptiveness, discontent, and bad manners. The collection of course is edited by Angela Carter and contains one story by her, and she wrote the introduction. In looking at the various women and girls who these stories are about Angela Carter in that introduction tells us:

“Most of the variously characterized girls and women who inhabit these stories, however, would seem much, much worse if men had created them. They would be predatory, drunken hags; confidence tricksters’ monstrously precocious children; liars and cheats; promiscuous heartbreakers. As it is, they are all presented as if they were perfectly normal. On the whole, women writers are kind to women.”

Eighteen stories by a variety of women authors, written in different styles from across the world, there are always those you like more than others, but in this collection, there was only one I really didn’t get on with. In these stories we meet debutantes, lesbians, con artists, witches, and prostitutes. Writers include Elizabeth Jolley, Grace Paley, Katherine Mansfield, Bessie Head, Colette and Jane Bowles. I can’t possibly discuss each story, but I aim to give a flavour of a few.

The collection opens with Elizabeth Jolley’s The Last Crop – about a woman in Australia who must sell her father’s farm. She doesn’t want to sell but she has to – her father had for many years longed to live in the house on the land he owned, but hadn’t been able to. A buyer is found, a kindly, honest man – who understands the sadness behind the necessity of selling. So, when the woman comes up with a plan to hold on to the farm, a while longer, the kindly buyer walks right into her trap.

In Rocky Gámez’s piece from The Gloria Stories and Jane Bowles’ A Guatemalan Idyll we encounter rich storytelling and vibrant, voracious characters. All Gloria wants to be, is a man, and she sets about becoming one, living her life as a man and finding a woman to love. Gloria insists to her lifelong friend, that now, she too will be able to father a child. In Bowles’ story an American traveller finds himself at the Pension Espinoza, surrounded by sensual, voracious women, who take great interest in him. It’s a gorgeously atmospheric story. Bessie Head takes us to Botswana and the story of Life, a woman who returns to her village after seventeen years in South Africa. While Katherine Mansfield tells us the story of a thoroughly unpleasant, spoiled young girl – who is rude and unkind to just about everyone.

One of my favourite stories was Wedlock by George Egerton, the pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne. It’s set in nineteenth century London, the woman at the heart of the story a dreadfully sad drunken woman, who takes a terrible, unimaginable revenge on her husband. Nevertheless – her story is such, that even in the face of a truly terrible act, we feel some sympathy with her. Two bricklayers working in the street outside provide a kind of chorus – the one telling the other about the woman, they have just witnessed reeling down the street, and later, feeling something bad might happen, tries to keep an eye out – but is interrupted and taken away from his post.

“The little man has watched her go in, and stands in the laneway looking up at the house. A light appears in the top back window, but it must come from the stairs, it is too faint to be in the room itself. He bends his head as if to listen, but the steady fall of the rain and the drip of the roof on to some loose sheets of zinc dominate everything. He walks away a bit and watches a shadow cross the blinds; his step crunches on the loose bricks and stones; a woman rushes down the flagged path of the next house and opens the door.”

(From Wedlock by George Egerton)

In Angela Carter’s own story The Loves of Lady Purple a puppeteer – the Asiatic Professor – has created a life sized puppet called Lady Purple. The Professor has travelled the globe with his little theatre and his strange little entourage of a dumb girl and a deaf teenage boy – weaving a story of shocking exoticism around the puppet. He is the creator of everything she does and is – the stories of her escapades come from him alone.

“As he crouched above the stage directing his heroine’s movements, he recited a verbal recitative in a voice which clanged, rasped and swooped up and down in a weird duet with the stringed instrument from which the dumb girl struck peculiar intervals. But it was impossible to mistake him when the Professor spoke in the character of Lady Purple herself for then his voice modulated to a thick, lascivious murmur like fur soaked in honey which sent unwilling shudders of pleasure down the spines of the watchers.”

(From The Loves of Lady Purple by Angela Carter)

So, when Lady Purple actually comes to life – the only one to blame is her creator himself.

There’s just a little light witchery in Colette’s The Rainy Moon, set in Paris and Frances Towers’ Violet – about a servant, who sets out to control the household she is working in.

Far too many stories to write about in any detail – but overall a thoroughly satisfying collection, in which I encountered new to me writers and a few old friends.

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It was the reviews of other bloggers that first pointed me in the direction of Maeve Brennan, and I read her slim novella The Visitor for reading Ireland month last year. Luckily for me Jacqui from Jacquiwine’s journal found she had two copies of The Springs of Affection and sent me her spare. A large collection of short stories – possibly one of the best collections I have read. It is a fairly large format paperback – and over 350 pages, which feels long for a story collection, however it certainly isn’t too long, it is simply glorious.

The stories gathered here are the very best from one of The New Yorker’s most celebrated writers. All but three of the stories in this collection were first published in The New Yorker between 1954 and 1981. Divided into three sections, this collection explores three different Dublin families. Here we see all the different kinds of love between people, and how sometimes that love fades, twists, or turns sour.

The first seven stories are autobiographical, stories of Maeve and her siblings growing up. These stories are all quite short, and I longed for more of them. Although not a huge amount happens here, they are simply perfect. There is gossip and excitement after a large fire at the shop round the corner from Maeve’s house. An old man comes to the door selling apples, after which it is hard to get rid of him. The most notable event from a story called The Day We Got Our Own Back – a group of plainclothes men carrying revolvers ransack the small suburban house where Maeve lived, looking for her father. At the time (1920s) Maeve’s father was for the Republic but against the Irish free state, and was on the run because of his beliefs. Nothing terrible occurs, Maeve and her siblings are surrounded by love, good sense and what looks like happiness. In The Lie she recalls the time she began to make her confession, and the lie she told her mother and how the penance she received from the priest gave her away.

The second set of stories feature Mr and Mrs Derdon. Rose and Hubert are a middle aged couple when we first meet them in the story A Young Girl Can Spoil her Chances. It is the forty-third anniversary of Mrs Derdon’s father’s death – she was just ten when he died – and she is going out early to have a mass said for him. Therefore Mr Derdon must breakfast alone, and he is resentful, sulking upstairs until he thinks he hears her leave the house.

“Hubert knew that look. She only wore it outside the house. Hubert disliked having the order of his day disturbed. He didn’t like to have his breakfast all topsy-turvy, and he didn’t like seeing his wife running around the house at that early hour of a weekday morning with her hat and her gloves on, and her big bulging prayer book in her hand, but what he disliked most of all was to see her go out to face the world wearing the face that she showed to the world, the face she imagined impressed people – as if anybody ever noticed her.”

Immediately from this story we get a sense of this marriage. The stories of Rose and Hubert don’t all run chronologically, some acting almost like a flashback moment to an earlier time in their lives. In one of my favourite stories A Free Choice we see Rose and Hubert as a young couple, they aren’t even officially courting yet, though Hubert has been visiting her at home with a view to making it more official between them. They are at a dance at Mrs Ramsey’s, Rose’s father had worked at Ramsey’s shop, had made the curtains that hang in the room where Rose finds herself stood watching the dancers. She remembers him telling her about the curtains. In this story we see the beginning of the relationship, and it’s not auspicious, Rose has had her head turned by another young man, who dances with her then leaves her stranded in the middle of the room. Hubert comes along at just the right moment.

There is so much unspoken pain and misunderstanding in this relationship, it feels quite suffocating and Brennan portrays these people perfectly. Rose and Hubert have a son, John, who left home for the priesthood, there is even resentment here, Hubert jealous of the love Rose has for her son, John suffocated by it. Each of them try in small ways to deceive the other, not very well, there is a cool anger and small petty hatreds in these stories. Even when one of them dies, the other is unable to grieve.

The third section of stories are about another family. The Bagots; Delia, and her husband Martin and their two daughters, there was a baby son who died, from which Delia has never recovered. Delia’s whole life is wrapped around her children and the pets she insists on having but that her husband hates. Martin has begun sleeping in the small spare room, ostensibly because he always comes home very late, often in the early hours, but what started out as a practical solution has simply turned into the norm. These are gentler stories, stories of domesticity – the opening story, The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary Delia gathers flowers for Martin’s room, arranging them in a glass bowl. Martin hasn’t forgotten the anniversary, but is resistant to acknowledging it. He feels encumbered by his family. In other stories we see Delia’s pride in a carpet decorated with pink roses, she beats and brushes it outside. In another story a new sofa is delivered, and there is all the excitement and anxiety a big purchase like this has for us all. Still there is a lot to remind us of Rose and Hubert, as this is another unhappy marriage by most people’s standards. In The Shadow of Kindness, the children go away on holiday without Delia, to stay with an aunt. Delia is instantly lost without them.

“Martin had given up sleeping in the big front bedroom, because she and the children got up early and disturbed him, moving about, and now he slept in the small room next to the bathroom, on the landing halfway up the stairs. Lately she had been hoping he would say something to her that would give them both a chance to talk, but he had said nothing. She knew things were not how they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see.”

The final story, The Springs of Affection – is deliciously sharp. Both Delia and Martin are dead. Martin’s twin sister Min, an elderly woman herself kept house for Martin after his wife’s death. Min has now brought as much of the contents of Delia and Martin’s house as she can back to her home in Wexford. She hated Delia passionately, she never forgave Martin for leaving their happy family home and getting married. She slipped the wedding ring from his dead hand as he lay in his coffin and now wears it on her own.

This is an incredible collection, which could almost be read as three novellas.

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One of the books I read in February for the #ReadIndies challenge – which I am glad is now extended until mid-March – was The Dear Departed a slight collection of selected short stories by Brian Moore. This was a collection I bought last year, intending to read it as part of the Brian Moore centenary, but of course, as so often happens I didn’t get around to it. So while I read it for #ReadIndies month, I am able to review it for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, always one of my favourite reading events.

Moore is much better known for his novels, though he did in fact write a number of short stories that were published in various periodicals and anthologies. These tightly controlled stories proving him to have been just as adept at the shorter form. Only one collection of his stories was published during his lifetime, this collection put together by Independent Irish publisher Turnpike books in 2020. The stories themselves however all date from a period between 1953 and 1961. Although there are only eight stories here I have decided not to write about each one.

Moore’s themes here are wonderfully variable, however. In these stories he considers Catholicism, death and emigration the sorts of themes one might expect of Brian Moore, alongside others we might not including stories of revenge, Sicilian bandits and Canadian acrobats.

“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was ‘No.’ All things came from that beginning. ‘No, don’t do that, Joe,’ Mama said. ‘No, not now, Joe,’ Daddy said.”

(A Vocation)

The collection opens with A Vocation a very short piece, in which a young boy enters into some discussion of Catholicism, the catechism, purgatory and death. His first conversation is with the priest – but later he joins up with his friend, and the two continue the discussion of purgatory, and whether it wouldn’t be better to die when very young, when you haven’t amassed too many sins. There is a seam of dark humour in this one that runs through the collection.  

In Grieve For the Dear Departed Daniel Kelleher lies dead in the downstairs spare bedroom. Supported by her adult children, his widow Kate awaits the arrival of her eldest son Michael – who she sent for when her husband died. Kate sent for Michael even though she knew her husband would not have wanted her to, but Michael is her son too, and she looks forward to his coming. For Daniel and his eldest son had been badly estranged – a mixture of pride and anger preventing the older man from reaching out. Now, in the midst of the activity that comes with the passing of a loved one, Kate waits in great anticipation and with some guilt for the return of another.

Uncle T tells the story of a young newly married couple Vincent and Barbara honeymooning in New York. For a few years Vincent has been writing to Uncle T (Turlough Carnahan) in the hope that one day his uncle may be able to help him. Now finally they are to meet – and Vincent has his hopes pinned on a job, a good job, anything that will free him from the prospect of returning to Ireland and his job of teaching secondary school boys. Uncle T had escaped Ireland, he had apparently achieved great success – he has told Vincent in the past that he would keep an eye out for opportunities that he might take up. Uncle T and his wife Bernadette don’t make a very good first impression – but Vincent is desperate to believe in the glamour he has built up around this uncle – Barbara is quick to see the dyed hair, the coarseness, the drinking, the crumpled shirt. Uncle T may not be quite all that he claimed.

In another very darkly comic piece, Off The Track a holidaying couple decide to take themselves off the usual tourist track while travelling in Haiti. They want to take photographs that others won’t have, photos they can show their friends back at home – while boasting of their intrepidness. They are dimly aware that many of the people object strongly to having their pictures taken, but in that arrogant way that tourists can have brush aside such things, and set out with little idea what they might encounter.

“Unemployed miners and construction workers, lumberjacks laid off in mid-season, old winos and middle aged beer hounds, a few lonely boys stranded in the big city, several immigrants who had not found God’s Own Country – they were a strangely pathetic group. They wore windbreakers, lumberjackets and army surplus overcoats. There wasn’t much talk. They were solitaries. Few had buddies here. In two shuffling crocodile lines they circled the long trestle dining tables picked up trays and cutlery and moved towards the serving hatches.

‘Hold it!’ Mr Minchip called. ‘Hold it, fellas.’ He turned to us. ‘You want a picture of the chow line?’”

(Hearts and Flowers)

Hearts and Flowers is the story of a mission at Christmas, homeless, out of work, destitute men will be rounded up and given a Christmas dinner as part of a publicity campaign in the newspapers. The editor thinks it will make a nice little feature for Christmas day. At the mission everything must run to the newspaper men’s convenience – the food laid out in front of the men, but they aren’t permitted to start eating until the photographer is ready. It’s a really sharp little piece – and totally believable.

I had realised recently that I hadn’t read a short story collection for ages – for no reason that I can think of, as I love short stories. This was great little collection, and a reminder just what an excellent writer Brian Moore is.

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Oh, that feeling, when you experience a writer for the first time – and think ‘I want to read everything now.’ I had been dimly aware of A L Barker for some years, I have had her novel John Brown’s Body (1970) on my tbr shelves for years – and then I acquired Submerged a collection of short stories published by Virago in 2002. The stories themselves were all originally published much earlier in Barker’s career, between the 1940s and 1960s. All of but one of the seven stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere – five of them in collections published by A L Barker earlier in her career. I haven’t gone looking yet – I daren’t, but I can only assume those early collections are hard to find now.

According to the introduction by Jane Gardam, Barker far preferred the short story form to that of novel writing, and this collection shows she was certainly adept at it. She was a prolific writer though, publishing eleven novels and eleven collections of stories (including this one) between 1947 and 2002. There is a seam of darkness running through these stories – for me it never goes too far – but then I love short stories like this – Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson – though their writing styles were different, did that so well too. As Jane Gardam says in her introductions:

“Evil throbs through A. L Barker’s world and is left unacknowledged and unexplained.”

(Jane Gardam – Introduction)

I can’t say too much about these stories for fear of spoilers – but I shall attempt to give a slight flavour of them all

The collection opens with Submerged – the title story. A young boy delights in his secret, underwater world, as he swims in the stream he has been banned from going to by his mother. He is alone here, and he relishes in his isolation. The silence and isolation are disrupted suddenly when two people appear – a man and a woman, in obvious conflict. The boy feels threatened so hides. He is witness to all that transpires – but it is his continuing silence in the wake of the events he witnessed that is shocking, and has terrible consequences for somebody else.

Perhaps the most frightening story in the collection is Someone at the Door for it plays right into the kinds of fear that many people have. That someone threatening might come into out home, and we find ourselves unable to get rid of them. A woman arrives from London at her brother’s cottage in the country to spend Christmas alone. Her brother and his family have gone away, and won’t be back for several days. Rain is falling very heavily, when a stranger arrives at the door, asking to use the phone as his car has broken down. It’s the feeling of not being totally in control of a situation that Barker recreates so well – she stops far short of anything really unpleasant – but the fear is enough, and we all recognise that.

In Men, Those Fabulous Creatures – a woman goes to talk to the residents at a residential home for the elderly. Having sat for a while talking to one resident, she gets something of a surprise later – just as the story she was listening to is reaching its conclusion.

The Iconoclasts – was one of my favourite stories, a story I read before in Wave me Goodbye – a wonderful anthology of wartime stories. There comes a point when the reader watches with horror – we know it won’t end well. It’s a fantastic story of childhood – which I could quite easily say too much about. A young boy plays happily, wrapped up in his own little word of childish superstitions and stories. When an older boy comes to play – he is thrust uneasily into the more knowing world of his exacting playmate. The day will end on a tragedy – that some readers may find upsetting. Barker’s depiction of childhood though is brilliant – despite the fact that she is apparently quoted as having not liked children.

“The visitor put his hands in his pocket, rocked to and fro on his heels and spoke with absolute authority. ‘It’s a twin-engined Blenheim bomber with “mercury” engines and five machine-guns – one in the port wing, two in the turret and two in the blister under the nose. It can carry a thousand pounds of bombs, but I expect it’s on a training trip now.’

Marcus looked sulky, yet he was impressed. Under his breath he muttered, ‘it’s not.’ Just once, without conviction.”

(The Iconoclasts)

Jane Dore – Dear Childe is a rather grim little historical story. Jane is an innocent, loving young girl, a healer. In the seventeenth century she is damned and accused of witchcraft by the local hellfire priest and sentenced to drown.

In A Chapter in the Life of Henry Subito Barker gives us another memorable child with a fierce and fanciful imagination. When his parents leave the stolid, unremarkable Henry on the beach by himself for a while with his comic – Henry decides to turn the time by himself to his own advantage. He wanders off toward one of the local hotels where becoming a little con artist he regales respectable residents with the stories of his life as an Arabian Prince, consuming vast quantities of afternoon tea in the process.

Novellette is one of those very long short stories you can really sink into. At around a hundred pages it is almost novella length. It is the story of a bad marriage, disrupted by a young soldier back from the war. William Felice is just nineteen, back from Dunkirk and injured. After release from hospital, he is billeted temporarily in the country with a draper and his wife Edward and Luise Mallory. William doesn’t think he will care much for the countryside, and goes rather unwillingly to his new billet. The Mallorys are middle aged – Edward concerned more with his little drapers shop than anything else – a little in awe of William’s war experiences. An unlikely affair begins between Luise Mallory and young William. None of these people seem well matched – and Barker shows us the grubby, pointlessness of this relationship – which no doubt young William will shrug off without a backward glance.

This was really a superb collection, which makes me wonder why I have left it so long to read A. L Barker, the introduction does suggest that she never really achieved the recognition and success that she deserved. How true that is of so many women writers of the twentieth century.

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This week is Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week, hosted by Helen at Gallimaufry. So, I am therefore reviewing ever so slightly out of order again.

English Climate is a collection of twenty-two wartime stories that Persephone put together for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. All the stories in English Climate were written in the period 1940 – 1946. Like other British short story writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner published many short stories in the New Yorker magazine – but the majority of the stories collected in this volume have not appeared in anthologies or other collections. There are a couple that have appeared in other Persephone anthologies, but for most Persephone readers these stories will be new. Having already read three other volumes of Sylvia Townsend Warner stories I was delighted to know that almost all these stories would be new ones to me.

As Lydia Fellgett tells us in her excellent preface to this edition, these were stories written by a woman wanting to understand what life was like in Britain at war. Unlike her novels which are set in a range of time periods, all these stories are contemporary (to the period in which they were written). Arranged in chronological order, these stories are brilliantly sharp, intelligent, funny, and sometimes a little heart-breaking. They are also incredibly readable – I did rather gobble them up one after another after another. The majority of the stories are set in the very English small market towns and villages of Southern England. There is something very recognisable about these communities, with their do-gooders, gossips, small jealousies, and everyday concerns. A few characters appear in more than one story, making these people and their communities feel even more real. It feels as if these are the very people Sylvia Townsend Warner saw around her, perhaps interacted with. Took part in, or listened to, their conversations – there is such an authenticity to the exchanges between characters. For me, these stories really could only have taken place in England. In these stories Sylvia Townsend Warner writes about military wives, conscientious objectors, evacuees, the mother’s union, and office workers. Through these stories she offers us a wry glimpse of one section of wartime society.

Of course, it simply isn’t possible to write about each of the twenty-two stories – who on earth would want me to? Some stories being shorter than others, are harder to write much about anyway – but as with any collection, some stories really stand out.  In the title story English Climate – positioned about two thirds of the way into the collection, Gunner Brock sets out from the anti-aircraft site where he is stationed on leave. It is raining heavily, and ahead of him is a nineteen hour journey on five different trains. The anticipation of home, all those familiar things – how many of us haven’t felt something a little similar when returning home from somewhere.

“At midday tomorrow it would still be raining. He would spend the afternoon having a bath, wallowing full length, hearing the chirp of rain in the gutters and the gentle wallop of bath water running down the overflow pipe. There he would lie, reading. And downstairs would be Mother, rattling the tea things, Edna coming home from her office, then Dad. At seven Mother and Edna would go off to the YMCA canteen, splashing so bravely through the wet. How on earth did women support life when there wasn’t a war? What would Mother do when this war was over and the canteen was closed and she was left with but one son (if that, indeed) instead of those dozens of ‘my boys’, towards all of whom she felt like a mother?”

(English Climate 1ST May 1943)

Noah’s Ark (21st June 1941) concerns a couple of evacuee children from the city. Mrs Purefoy is sure she knows exactly what they need. In the company of this well meaning but rather blinkered woman, the two children with wonderfully fertile imaginations and a passion for wild animals find themselves gradually moulded into two rather different children.

In The Trumpet Shall Sound (April 1942) an extended family gather for a funeral. Some members of the family are surprised by the appearance of another family they haven’t spoken to for years pulling up in a car behind them. That is the least of their worries. The service at the graveside is interrupted, by a plane overhead, a landmine dropped over the cemetery forcing several of the family to actually jump into the grave to take cover. It is farcically bizarre – though not totally unbelievable.

The common cold is the cause of much discussion, irritation as well as illness in a story simply called The Cold.

“In the sixth autumn of the war Mrs Ryder was a little tired. She was feeling her age. Her last tailor-made was definitely not quite a success and, say what you will, people do judge one by appearances: she could not help noticing strangers were not as respectful as they might be; though no doubt the unhelpfulness of Utility corsets played its part in the decline of manners.”

(The Cold – 10th March 1945)

Mrs Ryder is very proud that she still has her Stella working for the family, cooking, washing handkerchiefs so they don’t run out, scrubbing the back kitchen and generally being absolutely perfect. She is heard to say that Stella will never let them down. Mrs Ryder perhaps hadn’t reckoned on the destructive nature of successive colds in a household.

One of my favourite stories was It’s What we’re Here For (20 February 1943) in which the good women of the WVS come up against the rather pitiful figure of Mrs Leopard. A pregnant mother of two children – who have been evacuated, the reader can’t help but feel very sorry for her, and yet she has plenty of complaints. In this story – Sylvia Townsend Warner presents her various types – the do gooder and the poor, needy, complaining mother to perfection – there is both astute observation and humour here.

These stories are really excellent providing some rich texture to the times in which they were first written. Witty, lively with a slight seam of darkness running through them, these show Sylvia Townsend Warner to have been a consummate short story writer.

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For me a really good collection of short stories is one where there is a theme running across the collection, and the stories themselves are so good you just want to read them one after another after another. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one such collection, it was the only collection Mortimer published alongside nine novels, biography, memoirs and journalism.

The collection was first published in 1960, the twelve stories all written in the late 1950’s when Penelope Mortimer was known best for being the celebrated wife of John Mortimer – something which I think is key when we consider the theme of domestic disharmony and suffocation that runs through the collection. There is nothing warm and cosy about Mortimer’s domestic portraits here, instead we have stories of strained relationships, unhappy children, and infidelity. The women in these stories are often struggling with the realities of parenthood, the insensitivity of husbands or the other suffocations of an unequal marriage. Penelope Mortimer perfectly understands the unhappy child too, she is able to put herself into the mind of the child – the child who is let down by or unsure of the adults around them. Her observances are so sharp, the view of motherhood and marriage she leaves us with is ultimately devastating.

The collection opens with the brilliant The Skylight in which a young mother travels to France with her young son. They arrive at the remote house where the woman has arranged for them to stay. The child is tired and fractious and they are both in need of rest. However, the house is locked up with no sign of the owners and no way of gaining access to the house – and no one around to help. It is hot and the mother is anxious to settle her son inside. Having carefully looked to see if there is another way of getting into the house the mother spots a small skylight in the roof which is open, only it is far too small for her to get in. A ladder lies close by – an obvious though risky strategy occurs to her and after some agonised thought she puts her plan into action. She helps her five year old son down through the skylight from the top of the ladder, after giving him some very detailed instructions as what to do once inside. The child then disappears from her anxious view. It’s a story reminiscent in style of some of Daphne du Maurier’s more memorable pieces. Mortimer perfectly captures the tension and rising sense of panic in the situation.

“In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath.”

(The Skylight)

The Skylight wasn’t the only story that reminded me a little of du Maurier – another story further into the collection Little Mrs Perkins is a delicious little bit of sleight of hand. Mortimer lulls us into a false sense of security, the reader makes certain assumptions about the woman we are introduced to when all along there is something else entirely going on. The narrator of this story is a woman in bed in a nursing home recovering from the birth of her third child. The Mrs Perkins of the title is the woman brought into the bed next to her – it seems that she is threatening to miscarry the child she is carrying.

The title story Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is one of the stories that perfectly shows Mortimer’s ability to capture the minutia of domestic situations. In this story we meet what would now be called a blended family – Madge and William Browning, their daughter Bessie and Madge’s two daughters from her first marriage. The adults find themselves at each other’s throats arguing over the children – William’s resentment over his step-daughters gradually showing itself over the course of one volatile family Saturday.

A comfortably married couple feature in the darkly humorous Such a Super Evening. A lawyer and his wife are delighted to have had their dinner invitation accepted by the Mathiesons, a socially glamourous literary couple whose presence at parties is to be gloated over by the fortunate host. Needless the say, the evening doesn’t go quite as the couple had expected.

Mortimer is never afraid to make us shudder a little, she excels in the unexpected every bit as much as she does the domestic. In The White Rabbit an eleven year old girl is made to visit her estranged father who has some kind of rabbit farm. The child endures the visit to her father’s home – where she encounters rabbits in various states of health – and is given a white rabbit to take home.

“All the way back to London my father sang, in a tuneless sort of voice. I knew he was glad the day was over. I kept rehearsing what my stepfather would say. I knew he wouldn’t think of letting me keep the rabbit, but I was not sure of the voice or the words he would use. This worried me. I felt I should know. The rabbit crouched in my lap. It was so frightened I hoped it would have a heart attack and die.”

(The White Rabbit)

She doesn’t want the rabbit, for the girl the rabbit represents something she can barely articulate. She wants more than anything to belong wholeheartedly to her mother and step-father – a man vastly unlike her own father – the rabbit she sees as something that can only spoil that relationship.

Another story which focuses brilliantly I think on the viewpoint of a child – is The Renegade. A young girl at a boarding school she hates is certain her father will react with sympathy when she turns up on the doorstep late at night. This story is especially successful as we start with the self-deluding viewpoint of the girl’s parents – an unsatisfied middle aged vicar and his wife.

All in all, an absolutely brilliant collection of stories which has definitely whetted by appetite for more by Mortimer – I have previously read Daddy’s Gone a-hunting and The Pumpkin Eater.

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So, this MARM I have found myself reading more Margaret Atwood than I thought I would manage – and as always it has been a joy. I am currently into the last seventy pages or so of MaddAddam – the third book in that trilogy of the same name. Last week I read Moral Disorder – and I absolutely loved it – a definite candidate for my book of the month. A collection of short stories – although that isn’t really an accurate description – as the stories though non-chronological feature the same character throughout. Moral Disorder can be read almost like a novel – in a similar way to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I enjoy short stories a lot – and Atwood’s Stone Mattress had been my favourite of her collections until I read this one.

In these stories of the life of one woman – who is could easily be said, bears more than a passing resemblance to Atwood herself – the reader is taken on a journey across several decades. As well as not being entirely chronological – the tense changes too – many of the stories are told in the first person – others in the third person. While this might prevent us confusing Moral Disorder with being a novel – what does emerge is a wonderfully complete portrait of a woman’s life – the ups and downs of family life – from childhood through to late middle age. While we can see these stories as being very autobiographical – which I sense they are – the view is actually much broader – for me there was a sense of an entire generation represented through one woman, and her family.

The collection opens with Bad News in which a woman (who we come to know as Nell in subsequent stories) in late middle age reflects on age and what it means – how tenses define our lives – and this extract perfectly summing up how the rest of the book can be seen.

“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anyone else’s window.”

This view of past, present future is one I love in fiction as it highlights how connected everything is – how we as human beings are strongly connected to our pasts – and how the now we are in is so transitory.

In the second story The art of cooking and serving – we return to the summer when Nell was eleven – waiting anxiously for her mother to give birth to her new sibling. The anxiety come from the snatches of adult conversation that she has overheard – how her mother is getting a bit old for pregnancy – something might go wrong. Nell is knitting a layette for the baby to keep her busy – her father has made her responsible for looking after her mother while she is in this dangerous condition, the weight of responsibility is heavy – for the girl doesn’t really understand what it is that might happen. During the summer Nell and her mother go to the lakeside cabin where the family frequently holiday in summer – Nell’s father is away – and so the responsibility for her mother’s welfare rests on Nell’s young shoulders. They are a long way from a doctor – and Nell works out a plan for getting help should she need it.

The next story – The Headless Horseman – takes place about three years later – and now Nell is helping her mother look after her baby sister a lot. The child is a sensitive little thing, cries easily but adores her big sister following her around and wanting to be involved in everything she does. When Nell makes a headless horseman costume for Halloween – the result is a predictable scream fest – the toddler is terrified. What I loved in this story is how it switches between two time periods – the one in which the teenage Nell makes a Halloween costume that is less than successful – and one in which the adult siblings driving together to see their mother reminisce about the headless horseman costume. Anyone with a sibling must recognise that – those stories we keep and tell each other over and over – all those remember whens.

 In The Last Duchess – she recalls a high school teacher Miss Bessie – as Nell and her school friends edge nearer the possibility of ‘going on’ – ie university.

In The other Place – Nell is a young woman, having grown up in one time – the social landscape around her has changed considerably.

“At the time I’d set out, all women were expected to get married and many of my friends had already done so. But by the end of this period – it was only eight years, not so long after all – a wave had swept through, changing the landscape completely. Miniskirts and bell-bottoms had made a brief appearance, to be replaced immediately by sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts. Beards had sprouted, communes had sprung up, thin girls with long straight hair and no brassieres were everywhere. Sexual jealousy was like using the wrong fork, marriage was a joke, and those already married found their once-solid unions crumbling like defective stucco. You were supposed to hang loose, to collect experiences, to be a rolling stone.”

Through subsequent stories, like Monopoly, White Horse and the title story all told in the third person we watch Nell as she negotiates her relationship with Tig, the man she falls in love with. He is separated but still married with two boys – all of which her parents deeply disapprove. They live for a time on a farm, it’s not quite a rural idyll, there are difficulties to be negotiated and the locals think the barn is haunted. There are some chickens, then a few cows and an old white horse called Gladys and Nell’s sister comes to visit.

Moral Disorder is both touching and funny, keenly, and wisely observed – I’m surprised this collection isn’t talked about as much as some of Atwood’s other works. It really is a masterclass.

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Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

The Listener was Tove Jansson’s first collection of stories for adults. A recent read for #witmonth it proved a good choice for a period when I was in a very strange reading mood. Jansson’s clear, crisp prose, clear vision and her delicate philosophy was a delight to dip in and out of.

I came to Tove Jansson quite late – the Moomins completely passed me by as a child – and I only ever heard of Tove Jansson as an adult. I adored The Summer Book and A Winter Book, and I fully intend to explore more of her work – and while I enjoyed The Listener a lot I didn’t think it was quite at the standard of those other two. One story in this collection – The Squirrel is also in A Winter Book – as it was one of my favourites from that collection, it was lovely to encounter it again.

There are eighteen pieces in this collection – which only runs to 157 pages, so some of these stories really are very, very short indeed, and so rather difficult to write about. I shall attempt therefore to just give a slight flavour of the collection – but I certainly feel as if there is a limit to what I can write about this one.

Jansson’s stories portray a city ravaged by storms, the beauty of the start of spring, childhood, old age and love. There is some quite lovely imagery here – and as ever her prose is a simple joy. Characters are introspective, thoughtful, and philosophical. A couple of stories veer towards the supernatural, but with a delicacy that never strays too far from reality. Artists feature prominently, as does light and scenery – Jansson’s descriptions are always spot on.

“In this naked light, all of winter’s traces are visible not least in a face. Everything becomes distinct and turns outwards, exposed, penetrated by the light. People come out of their holes. Perhaps they’ve survived the winter in flocks or maybe alone, willy-nilly, but now they appear and make their way to the harbour, the way they always do.”

(In Spring)

The Collection opens with the title story. Aunt Gerda is a good listener, but old age is impacting on her memory, she fears what this might mean for her. Her solution to her forgetfulness is to create a unique artwork that will record the secrets that have been confided in her, but while it preserves these secrets it will also betray them.

“It seemed to her the window was a great eye looking out over the city and the harbour and a strip of the gulf under ice. The new silence and emptiness was not entirely a loss; it was something of a relief. Aunt Gerda felt like a balloon, untied, soaring off its own way. But, she thought, it’s a balloon that’s bouncing against the ceiling and can’t get free.
She understood that this was no way to live; human beings are not built to float. She needed an earthly anchor of meaning and care so she didn’t get lost in the confusion.”

(The Listener)

In The Birthday Party – two sisters throw a birthday party for their young niece – inviting a number of local children to their home. The niece herself doesn’t arrive – and the bemused aunts, clearly unused to children – or how to behave around them – try desperately to keep the party going. The way Jansson portrays these clueless women, so out of their depth is just brilliant.

“‘Come in,” said Miss Häger. “Please, go right on into the sitting room, where there’s room for everyone. Don’t stand in the doorway, go right on in …” The children went into the sitting room. She clapped her hands and cried, “Now you can start to play! What game would you like to play?” They stared at her without answering. Vera Häger went out into the kitchen and said, “You’ve got to come, right now, right away. It’s not working.”
        Her sister lifted the platter with the decorated ice cream and said, “What do you mean? What’s not working?”
         “The party. They’re just standing around. I don’t think they like me. And Daniela hasn’t come.’”

(The Birthday Party)

Black-White – is one of the longest pieces – and one of those I liked the most. It is a homage to the artist Edward Gorey. The artist in the story is an illustrator – married to Stella, they live in the house she designed. The artist is working on a collection of fifteen black and white illustrations for a book – he is inspired to use darkness in the illustrations – yet all around him in the house where they live there is just too much light. Stella suggests that he use her aunt’s old house which is standing empty in which to work. The artist packs up this things and goes to the house, where he will be alone.

In Letters To An Idol a woman writes often to an author who she admires. In time, he actually writes back – and soon after that they meet. A story which demonstrates perfectly that meeting those we admire can be problematic.

In The Wolf an elderly woman meets a Japanese man Mr Shimomura who is an illustrator for children – he specialises in drawing animals. He has asked to see some dangerous animals; he draws a wolf to demonstrate what he would like to see. So, despite the cold, and her advancing years, the woman accompanies him to a zoo – to show him a real wolf.

I mentioned The Squirrel above – the story I read before – it is still a thoroughly beautiful piece of writing, so delicately observed. An old woman living in a small house on an island, looks out of her window one day and sees a squirrel. She muses about how it came to be on the island, probably drifting over on the driftwood that washes up on the shore. Her life becomes oddly caught up with that of this little creature – her fascination in it increases. The squirrel affecting her quiet, ordered little existence on the island in unexpected ways.

The Listener is beautiful little collection of stories, Jansson’s prose is the star of the show – and I am reminded once more how I really must explore more of her work.

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Fiction that reflects the times in which it was written is so much more interesting for me than historical fiction – there is a resonance which is hard to recreate after the fact. So, this collection of Second World War stories was a perfect read for me. Wave me Goodbye is a superb collection of women’s voices portraying a period that continues to fascinate.

In these stories we see clearly women’s lives and participation in the war. It’s a different role to the male role – often more domestic, those daily struggles to keep everything together. There is humour and pathos in these stories, and together they depict a world of gas masks and shelters, the drama and devastation of being bombed out, the agony of watching a loved one go off to war. With such a range of writers collected together we see a variety of viewpoints too; it is a collection that is a must for any reader interested in women’s writing of this period.

It can be hard to accurately review an anthology of stories, especially with such a range of fascinating writers in one volume. A few of the stories I had read before in other collections, stories like Goodbye Balkan Capital by Barbara Pym, Miss Anstruther’s Letters by Rose Macaulay and Goodbye My Love by Mollie Panter Downes and a few others but it was no struggle to read those again. Alongisde these we have some of the greatest women writers of the period, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Margery Sharp, Jean Rhys and Sylvia Townsend Warner among others, a veritable who’s who of women writers. However, I can naturally only really give a flavour of this collection.

The Collection opens with When the Waters came by Rosamond Lehmann. A woman and her children spending the war in the country are shocked when a great thaw comes suddenly in February and floods the village. I couldn’t help but think that this might have been something of how it felt to suddenly find yourself living in a country at war.

“The thaw came in February, not gradually but with violence, overnight. Torrents of brown snow-water poured down from the hills into the valley. By the afternoon, the village street was gone, and in its stead a turbulent flood raced between the cottages.”

At once the familiar landscape altered, disorienting and potentially dangerous.

In The lovely leave by Dorothy Parker a wife anticipates the upcoming leave of her husband. He is due to have twenty-four hours, and she remembers how she had allowed her husband’s previous leave to be spoilt – and is determined to not make the same mistakes.

I really enjoyed The Mysterious Kor by Elizabeth Bowen – which starts in an almost dreamlike fashion, Arthur and his girlfriend Pepita walking together in a London street. Pepita muses about the mysterious Kor – quoting some lines of poetry about a magical seeming place that is far and away from the reality of their lives.

“This war shows we’ve by no means come to the end. If you can blow whole places out of existence, you can blow whole places into it.”

Arthur is on leave and he and Pepita walk back to the flat she shares with Callie – Callie has agreed that Arthur can stay on the sofa while he is in London. Callie welcomes them eagerly with cocoa – happy to experience something of their lives vicariously.

In Night Engagement by Margery Sharp a mother sees the nightly escape into the air raid shelter as the perfect opportunity for her daughter Doris to meet a nice young man. Each day they decide which shelter would be best – later discussing the merits of anyone Doris met the night before. When Doris is trapped under a collapsed building with a young railway worker, Doris’s mother wastes no time in going round to introduce herself to the young man’s mother and the two women begin to make plans as they await the re-emergence of their offspring.

Yet another side to the many domestic difficulties is highlighted in The Sailor’s Wife by Ann Chadwick. A naval wife is desperate to find lodgings for herself her baby and for her husband when he is on leave. She has come to a coastal town where her husband’s ship will dock and leaving her child at the hotel – she walks despondently from house to house around the town practically begging for a place to stay.

As we progress further into the collection, we begin the aspects of the end of the war, and its immediate aftermath.

“A new road, which ran a lane’s length from the farm, was being built by German prisoners, still retained though the war was long over, and from eight in the morning until dusk there was a sound of continuous noisy activity about the moorland farm, as they grey-green figures broke up the stones which were brought in by lorries from the neighbouring stone quarries. The old people, who were called William and Mary Illingworth, had but often seen the prisoners, but had not yet spoken to one of them.”

In The Mandoline by Malachi Whitaker a German prisoner of war is brought to the home of an elderly couple by his guard. The prisoner wants to borrow the couple’s mandoline to play at the camp’s concert. Now, I was mightily confused by a mandoline (not mandolin) and google couldn’t help. Still, the story is a tenderly observed piece and beautifully written.

Altogether this was a quite marvellous collection, and clearly right up my street. Highly recommended for likeminded readers.

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