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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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Today is the first day of #DDMreadingweek, for those of you joining in I have started a new page for this year’s reading event, and I will be updating it over the week with links to other reviews and posts. You can find it here.

Like last year, I decided to start with a collection of stories. The Birds and other stories is probably best known for its title story, which was adapted for film, by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. It is the opening story in the collection, and it captivates immediately. There are six long short stories in the collection, each of them fully immersive and of a satisfying length. Du Maurier’s settings are varied, her sense of place so good that her stories – whether full length novel or short story – are immediately visual. In these stories, we find ourselves on the English coast, in a remote European mountain village, a sun soaked holiday resort for the wealthy and a rural English landscape.

In The Birds human beings come suddenly and unexpectedly under attack, when the wind changes on December 3rd and birds of every kind take to the skies. In their thousands the birds acting against their normal instincts, turn on the human population. We see the unfolding horror through the eyes of Nat Hocken, a husband and father living near on the coast. To begin with Nat merely thinks the changes to the weather have somehow affected the birds in some strange way, he has no sense that civilisation could be in any way threatened. Birds of all kinds and sizes flock together, sparrows, finches, and gulls fill the skies, then they break into the house at night, filling the children’s bedroom attacking, terrifying. Similar reports begin coming in from across the country – the radio goes off air – Nat struggles to protect his family. It is a brilliant, chilling story – and in an age when we are concerned with things like climate change and its affect on animal species, there is something quite salutary about it.

“…as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the sea birds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Make haste, make speed, hurry and begone; yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.”

Monte Verita is a story that takes place over a number of years. It is the longest story in the collection, and it drags a little, things get increasingly odd as the narrative progresses, I found it oddly compelling nevertheless, and it is certainly memorable. Here we have another male narrator; a man who in his younger days with his good friend Victor enjoyed mountain climbing all over Europe. When Victor marries Anna, the three are frequently together. Anna declares her desire to join her husband on the mountains, but it is the mountain paradise of Monte Verita that seems to be calling her. A place that promises immortality – it comes at a terrible price.

Du Maurier’sdark irony is in evidence in The Apple Tree. The narrator is a man recently widowed. Flashbacks to his marriage show his wife to have been an unhappy, grumbling woman, martyring herself to the housework. However, how reliable this narrator is we can’t really know. Following his wife’s death, the man revels in his new freedom, not mourning his wife at all – he even remembers with some nostalgia the pretty land girl he once kissed some years earlier. One thing spoils his new happiness, the apple tree in his garden long thought to be barren begins to show signs of new life. When the tree starts to produce apples, the fruit taste fine to everyone but the widower for whom it tastes disgusting. The man starts to hate the tree with an all consuming bitterness, he sees it overshadowing the smaller, younger prettier trees next to it, stealing the very life from them. It’s as if it is possessed of an angry or malign spirit.

“The moon shone full upon the little apple tree, the young one. There was a radiance about it in this light that gave it a fairy-tale quality. Small and lithe and slim, the young tree might have been a dancer arms upheld, poised ready on her toes for flight. Such a careless, happy grace about it. Brave young tree. Away to the left stood the other one, half of it in shadow still. Even the moonlight could not give it beauty. What in heaven’s name was the matter with the thing that it had to stand there, humped and stooping, instead of looking upwards to the light? It marred the still quiet night, it spoilt the setting.”

The Little Photographer concerns a beautiful, lonely marquise on holiday with her two children and their governess. Her husband has remained at home to attend to business. She is bored and restless, many of her friends have had passing liaisons which they tell her about and make sound so exciting. On a visit to the village she meets a young photographer and hires him to take photos of her and the children. They start meeting up in the hot afternoons, while everyone else rests, however soon he starting to get too attached – speaking of following her home. The Marquise is desperate to save herself and her marriage, realising too late how foolish she has been.

In Kiss me again, stranger a young mechanic meets the girl of his dreams at the cinema.  She is an enigmatic beauty, and the reader senses right away something is going on that we don’t yet understand. This isn’t a ghost story, yet there is something slightly spooky about the story – especially when the girl takes the young man into a graveyard on a late evening walk.

I really can’t say too much about the final story; The Old Man, without giving away important spoilers. It has the most brilliant twist though. Our narrator has been watching a family down by the river, he assigns each member a name, the patriarch is the old man. Silently, he watches the turbulent relationships between the family develop over time. I shall say no more.

This fascinating, compelling set of stories really got my Daphne du Maurier reading off to a great start.

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I found this little collection of short stories by Edna O’Brien in a charity shop several months ago. Read Ireland month gave me the perfect excuse to read it. I enjoy short stories, and not having read O’Brien’s short stories before I was interested to see what they were like. Mrs Reinhardt and other stories is one of nine story collections published by this hugely prolific writer, whose latest novel has just been longlisted for this year’s women’s prize. Based on this collection, I would definitely be up for reading more story collections by Edna O’Brien.

In these stories, as elsewhere in her fiction, Edna O’Brien writes with honesty and great perception. Her settings vary, although Ireland appears in several of them. Edna O’Brien successfully portrays the emotion surrounding loves and longings, sexual repression and betrayal. Twelve beautifully written stories, I didn’t think there was a dud among them.

The Mrs Reinhardt of the title is a memorable character who appears in two stories, Number Ten, which is the first story in the collection and Mrs Reinhardt which is the final story. In that opening story, Mrs Reinhardt is plagued by a series of dreams/sleepwalking events, that take her to a particular house – that she has no previous knowledge of. The house contains within it, everything she has ever dreamed of having.

“She sat on the edge of the bed, marvelling, and saw the other things that she had always wanted. She saw, for instance, the photo of a little girl in First Communion attire; she saw the paperweight that when shaken yielded a miniature snowstorm; she saw the mother-of-pearl tray with the two champagne glasses – and all of a sudden she began to cry because her happiness was so immense. Perhaps, she thought, he will come to me here, he will visit, and it will be like the old days and he won’t be irritable and he won’t be tapping with his fingers or fiddling with the lever of his fountain pen. He will smother me with hugs and kisses and we will tumble about on the big foamy bed.”

She imagines it will only be a matter of time before Mr Reinhardt follows, and finds her there. However, she is soon to discover, in her waking life, the real connection she and her husband have to this house. It is a revelation that will rock her marriage, as we see in the later story. In this second story Mrs Reinhardt and her husband have clearly separated following the events in the earlier story. Mrs Reinhardt has brought her hurt to Brittany where she has a chalet rented in the grounds of a hotel. She dines in the hotel and enjoys the local countryside. In her possession is a valuable necklace which belongs by right to her husband, as it had come to him from his mother, she took in a fit of pique, seeing it as a talisman of their time together. She meets a younger man, from Iowa, and their passionate encounter yields perhaps predictable results, and Mrs Reinhardt is forced to contact her husband and admit her folly. These were definitely among my favourite in the collection, and Mrs Reinhardt would, I decided, have been an excellent subject for a full length novel.

In The Small Town Lovers, an odd couple; the Donnellys are remembered by the daughter of a woman who once befriended the wife Hilda. The setting is rural Ireland, and Jack and Hilda who met in America while working in an asylum, came home to Ireland and opened a little grocery shop. They are viewed with some derision, but on a visit to their home the narrator makes a chilling discovery, that she finds impossible to forget in the wake some years later of Hilda’s death.

Another memorable character is Miss Hawkins in Christmas Roses. Miss Hawkins is that dread thing a middle-aged spinster (laughs) – who in her younger years toured Europe leading a cabaret life, then lived in Baghdad the favourite of a wealthy man. It was in Baghdad she had learned to love gardening. Now in London she takes it upon herself to care for the communal garden in the square where she lives, seeing it as a kind of civic responsibility. One day Miss Hawkins finds a young man camping in the middle of the garden. After the initial surprise, the two strike up a friendship and the young man begins to help Miss Hawkins in the garden, he later invites her to accompany him to a concert. Miss Hawkins starts to wonder if she shouldn’t invite him to share her flat.

“At the supper afterwards they discussed jealousy, and Miss Hawkins was able to assure him that she no longer suffered from that ghastly complaint. He did. He was a positive pickle of jealously. ‘Teach me not to be,’ he said. He almost touched her when she drew back alarmed and offended, apparently, by the indiscretion. He retrieved things by offering to pick up her plastic lighter and light her cigarette. Miss Hawkins was enjoying herself. She ate a lot, smoked a lot, drank a lot, but at no time did she lose her composure. In fact she was mirth personified, and after he had dropped her at her front door she sauntered down the steps to her basement, then waved her beaded purse at him and said as English workmen say. ‘Mind how you go.’”

Ways is set in a snowy Vermont. Two women; Jane and Nell meet for just a day, Nell a visiting speaker arranged by Jane. From the moment Nell sees a photograph of Jane’s husband she is drawn to him with a passionate longing. Then Jane invites Nell to stay for one more night so she can get to know them all a bit better.

There are a few stories that appear to be set in Ireland, although we don’t always get place names, A Rose in the Heart – portrays the lifelong relationship between a mother and daughter. In A Woman by the Seaside, a woman has persuaded her doctor husband to come to rural Ireland on holiday. Here she plans to encounter her lost love of years earlier, who she guesses will also be visiting for the summer. Clara is set in what appears to be a small town in Ireland, where a visiting foreign engineer Jan, becomes involved and then obsessed with the fate of a local young woman, Clara. Clara has been in a local asylum type of hospital – but Jan quickly realises that innocent though she is, she should not be there. He learns that Clara’s brother and his wife have their own reason for wanting Clara to stay where she is.

Goodness, this has ended up much longer than I intended, but this was a really excellent collection of stories, and while I couldn’t write about all the stories, several have really stayed with me since I finished.

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Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

My second read for #Fitzcarraldofortnight was Dark Satellites – a collection of short stories by contemporary German writer Clemens Meyer whose novel Bricks and Mortar has received a lot of praise. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys contemporary short stories.

This is modern Germany, busy, multi-cultural – Meyer’s settings are the satellite towns away from the shiny heart of the modern city landscape. We have tower blocks, fast food restaurants, stations and industrial units. The people in these stories are wonderfully real, they too are rather out on the edge of things, marginalised people, the unseen and forgotten. These are people with memories of Germany before unification, their pasts are tied up with the coming down of the Berlin wall.

“Sometimes you lose yourself in time, you know, and it takes a few seconds to work out where you are.”

Meyer’s writing is brilliant, past and present are fairly fluid, always connected the minds of his characters moving between now and then. There are nine longish stories, each prefaced by a shorter opening piece.

Broken Glass in Unit 95 A guard spends his shift recalling the affair he had with a refugee woman several years earlier.

In Late Arrival, which was one of my favourite stories, two women meet and strike up a friendship. One is a cleaner on trains, she works through the night and one day she meets a hairdresser in a bar, sharing a few drinks. Two lonely people, connect.

“It was just after six in the morning, the end of the night shift on the trains, the start of the early shift in the salon. She’d swept and wiped all night, her workmates taciturn in the morning hours and everything difficult, and it seemed as though the trains they worked on got longer and longer, a new carriage waiting after every one they’d cleaned.”

A middle aged man in – The Beach Railway’s Last Runtakes some time away from his normal life when he visits the western breakwater. Here he meets an elderly man whose memories of wartime when he was a teenager remain ever present. The old man, recounts his story of those times, haunted by his actions and the split minute decision he was forced to make.

In the title story, Dark Satellites, we meet a young man who runs a burger bar. His business partner Mario has recently left – gone up the coast to run a floating fast food restaurant. It is in his burger bar, that he first meets Hamad who lives on the fourteenth floor of a nearby high rise with his girlfriend. The burger bar owner and Hamad’s girlfriend have become friendly, meeting up to smoke in the hallways – looking out the windows at the lights in the other high rise flicking on and off through the dark.

A train driver in The Distance has his life completely devastated when, while driving his night train he hits a laughing man on the railway tracks.

This is a collection of stories that perfectly illustrate the odd romanticism that comes with urban nights – perhaps that’s just me. One of my favourite things about my city is travelling in a taxi at night – looking through windows and glimpsing tiny bits of other lives. The part of the city I live in is old, industrial, very urban, others don’t look at it closely I don’t suppose, but I do, it’s like people watching, a little addictive. Meyer highlights chance, fleeting encounters between strangers – loneliness and memory.

“The nights were dull and endless, started at six and ended at six, they were like dark days that touched in the middle, and when they stopped being dull they got even darker and more endless and we wished we were bored again, hours half-asleep between our inspection rounds, our heads never allowed to touch the table top, we’d doze sitting up…”

Katy Derbyshire’s translation is superb (incidentally I discovered her Twitter the other day, and on it are photos of some of the places Mayer writes about/was inspired by).

I am so glad that I was prompted by Karen and Lizzie’s reading event to take this off the shelf, it was an excellent, deeply atmospheric reading experience.

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Olivia Manning is definitely one of those writers whose books I always feel confident of enjoying. I don’t think I had known that she had published short stories, until I came across this collection in a charity shop. There are fourteen stories in A Romantic Hero – also the title of the penultimate story.

In these stories Olivia Manning explores lonely childhoods and complex adult relationships. Her stories, just like her wonderful novels are shot through with her precise understanding of people, their domestic dramas, their sadness and their humour. Arranged chronologically (I like that way of putting story collections together) these stories represent a period of almost thirty years of Manning’s creative life, with the first two stories dating from 1938 and the final story from 1966.

Rather than try and talk about all fourteen stories in this collection, I will give just a flavour of some of them. One thing I really liked was how Olivia Manning takes to so many different locations, from coastal Ireland to Cairo, to Jerusalem and a snowy wartime Romania. Many of the locations I have encountered in her novels.

“There, clutching the tufts of hard grass, they could look down into the crevices where they believed the strong-smelling weed hid giant octopi and other secret, colourless monsters.

They came to the leap.

Mrs Clandavy, on the other side of the wall, started calling them again.

‘We’re coming,’ Joseph answered as he took the leap without pausing to measure it or glance down. He went over with this bone-thin legs bent. His knickers, his ragged jersey and his socks were all too short, and his limbs stuck out from them like sticks. His neck, like a thin stalk, held precariously the weight of his large head with its thick, untidy, fawn-coloured hair. Van, a year older, taller and even thinner, followed him easily.”  

(Childhood – 1938)

The collection opens with Childhood a story paired with the one that comes after it, The Two Birthdays. Both stories are about the Clandavy children and their difficult emotional mother. In the first story Van and her younger brother Joseph are exploring the beach near their Irish home. Picking up bits of debris from the beach, checking on Mr Congo the crab they have adopted and been finding food for. Hearing their mother calling, they are forced to leave the beach and return to the house, and the difficult, confusing atmosphere, where their parents are frequently waging war, and playing the children off on one another. In the second of these, time has moved on a little, and Mrs Clandavy has separated from her husband. There is a day out with neighbours planned on the river, which Joseph has been looking forward to. These stories are slow and meandering, and I love that kind of storytelling and there is a deliciously strong sense of time and place too.

Other Irish families appear in this collection, like in The Visit, in which the narrator remembers a visit to a Lady Moxton when she was a child. She hadn’t really wanted to go and had been relying on her brother to be with her, but at the last minute he was ill in bed with a cold. She travels by tram with her bossy, ambitious mother and must face the strange old woman without her brother.

I was reminded strongly of The Balkan Trilogy in In A Winter Landscape in which we follow a British couple as they travel across Romania by train. They meet a Polish soldier and get into conversation, spending a couple of days in one another’s company on the train and overnight at a hotel. Manning’s descriptions of the landscape are lovely, her eye for detail as good as ever.

“The damp in the air had covered the carriage windows with long ferns of frost. One could scrape off the frost and see through the glass the white landscape going past. This was wheat-growing country, treeless, the fields repeating themselves in hills and hollows that looked barren, as though made of salt.”

(In a Winter Landscape – 1941)

In The Man who Stole a Tiger, we meet Tandy, a survivor of a lost troopship, he was brought back to health in a Jerusalem sanatorium. The story is narrated by a Padre who spends time with Tandy before and after the events related in the story, the Padre never really liked Tandy, who he describes as an ex-borstal boy. While recovering in Jerusalem, Tandy found himself visiting the zoo – and it was there he decided to free the tiger who he seemed to connect with and feel needed rescuing. Tandy steals the tiger and then embarks on an absurdly long journey by road. I won’t spoil the ending – which most readers will see coming – but it’s wonderfully subtle and desperately poignant.

In Twilight of the Gods Elizabeth goes on holiday to Ireland just after the war. Here she meets again a woman she knew years earlier and had once thought rather glamourous. She finds a woman greatly changed and living in the middle of an uncomfortable domestic situation which Elizabeth is keen not to get drawn into.

In the title story; A Romantic Hero, we meet Harold, living (kind of) with Angela – who he doesn’t love. One day he meets a good looking young man called David, and Harold is smitten – and imagines David feels as he does. He arranges to meet the young man the following day, and of course nothing goes quite as Harold imagines.

All in all this was a lovely collection, reminding me – had I needed it, what a great writer Olivia Manning is. When I finished the Levant trilogy around Christmas, I felt quite bereft, so I was in need of another Olivia Manning book I think.

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