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Daphne Du Maurier reading week started yesterday, but I began my reading last week – mainly because I am quite busy, and I wanted to read and review at least two books. I decided to begin with The Breaking Point – a collection of short stories is always a good choice for a busy week. It’s an excellent collection.

Eight stories of suspense that often cross the boundaries of reality, Du Maurier’s imagination is extraordinary – so you never quite know what she’ll throw at you, that’s exciting. In these stories, we see characters who have reached their breaking point. Stories which take us from the residential streets of London, to the wards of a nursing home, to Venice, a fictional European state, Hollywood and the Devon moors.

The collection opens with The Alibi – the Fentons are a dull middle-aged couple – their lives are unchanging, a walk every Sunday afternoon, drinks with the Alhusons, who are just as dull. One day James Fenton can’t take it anymore – and decides he must vary the routine. On a whim – he walks down a different street and selects a door to knock on.

“Fenton took off his hat. The impulse was strong within him to say, ‘I have come to strangle you, You and your child. I bear you no malice whatever. It just happens that I am the instrument of fate sent for this purpose.’ Instead, he smiled. The woman was pallid like the child on the steps, with the same expressionless eyes, the same lank hair. Her age might have been anything from twenty to thirty-five. She was wearing a woollen cardigan too big for her, and her dark, bunched skirt, ankle-length, made her seem squat.

‘Do you let rooms?’ asked Fenton.”

Fenton then enters into a peculiar double life – for months spending his afternoons in the basement room where he takes up painting. Throughout this brilliantly plotted story the reader waits, heart in mouth for something terrible to happen.

The Blue Lenses is surely the most disturbing and memorable story in the collection. Marda West rests patiently in a nursing home, following an operation on her eyes. Her eyes have been bandaged for days – temporary blue lenses have been put into her eyes – which will be replaced by permanent ones after a couple of days. Mrs West has befriended the gentle, soothing nurse who looks after her – arranging for her to spend a week of her holiday nursing Marda in her convalescence (not much of a holiday, I agree). She looks forward eagerly to her husband’s visits. She is eagerly anticipating the removal of the bandages – what will she see through these blue lenses? The operation appears to have been entirely successful, but Marda can’t even begin to imagine what will happen when the bandages are removed.

In Ganymede a classical scholar travels to Venice where he is almost instantly drawn to a young waiter who he casts as his own Ganymede. Utterly besotted he returns to the same bar each evening. However, the beautiful young man also has an uncle, a tout the tourist is unable to rid himself of, the man appears everywhere, even arranging for a change of accommodation. It’s a story that plays cleverly on our own fears and paranoia – and is wonderfully atmospheric but the scene is set for tragedy.  

In The Pool two children return to their grandparents house for their summer holidays. The garden has been there waiting for them all year – and Deborah has spent the whole year dreaming of it – and being back there.

“Surely sometimes it must mock the slow steps of Grandpa pacing up and down the terrace in front of the windows, or Grandmama calling to Patch? The garden has to endure month after month of silence, while the children were gone. Even the spring and the days of May and June were wasted, all those mornings of butterflies and darting birds, with no one to watch by Patch gasping for breath on a cool stone slab. So wasted was the garden, so lost.”

Deborah takes herself off to the pool at the end of the garden – having thrown off her brother – she wants to experience it by herself. Here she enters a secret, alternative world – and one that could be terrifyingly perilous.

Other stories take us to rather less well known locations, a fictional kingdom in Europe in The Archduchess, where revolution threatens to topple the ruling family – who are gifted with the secret of eternal youth.

In The Menace – the least sinister story – a Hollywood movie star has been the darling of the silver screen for years. With the advent of a new medium – ‘the feelies’ he is found wanting – the feeling he gives off just not strong enough. Something must be done.

In The Chamois an obsessional hunter journeys to the Kalabaka in the Pindus mountains of Greece to hunt the elusive chamois. His wife is to accompany him, she doesn’t understand his obsession. The two set out, with a strange, frozen eyed guide who leads them up the mountain to where the chamois have been seen.

In The Lordly Ones, a young mute boy is taken by his parents from their home in Exeter to the moors. No one ever explains anything to him – he is treated cruelly and negligently – so the child’s imagination fills in the gaps of his understanding – leading to even more confusion. My heart broke for this child – who while watching from his window sees The Lordly Ones and decides to join them.

Eight, wonderfully immersive stories – the kind you gulp down, sitting up too late at night. What an endlessly inventive writer Daphne Du Maurier was, I already knew she was a great short story writer – from the Don’t Look Now collection, these are every bit as readable.

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As the LT Virago group continue ‘reading the 1940s’ our March theme is women – which saw me reading Liana by Martha Gellhorn earlier this month. My second book for this month’s theme was The Persimmon Tree and other stories, a book taking me to Australia. In these stories Marjorie Barnard explores the experience of women, the bonds between them and the relationships they have with men. This VMC edition includes three additional stories originally not included when the collection was first published in 1943.

Marjorie Barnard established a writing partnership with Flora Eldershaw with whom she produced both novels and works of criticism. They published under the name M Barnard Eldershaw for almost twenty years. Marjorie Barnard’s only successful solo work was The Persimmon Tree and other stories.  

Other themes in these beautifully observed stories include rivalry between women, illicit love, new relationships and those gone sour. Women who must face up to loneliness or a changing world, women who manipulate their men to their ways, and others who turn a blind eye to the ways of their men. A couple grieve their youngest child at Christmas, a man hears about his wife’s lottery win with surprise but no idea of what she might really have in mind for her winnings. A woman goes to buy a hat at her children’s insistence another tries to get over a love affair.

“‘I am like a young girl in love,’ she reproached herself. ‘I have no right to this.’ She told herself bitterly ‘I am old enough to know better.’ She was swept with nostalgia for youth when at least love was not ridiculous, when one had a right to grief, even to a broken heart. She told herself, driving in the statements like nails; ‘I am nearly forty, I am a widow, everything is over.”

(The Woman who Did the Right Thing)

Despite being a fairly slim book – less than 200 pages – there are twenty stories here, some really very short – too many to discuss in detail here. I can attempt to give only a flavour by picking out a few that stand out.

The Arrow of Mistletoe is the story that opens the collection. Lisca Munro is married to a very successful business man. Her love is blind, and Lisca seems totally unaware of her husband’s ways of doing business. He has arranged a huge, expensive dinner party – that Lisca is dimly aware they can’t afford – in order to ensnare another man of business for one of his schemes.

The title story The Persimmon Tree is a short subtle story – in which a woman recovering from an illness, takes a new flat. She watches the flats opposite, the street outside and the shadow of the tree on her wall. In this way the woman comes face to face with her own loneliness – and it is quite exquisitely rendered.

“Persimmons belong to autumn and this was spring. I went to the window to look again. Yes, they were there, they were real. I had not imagined them, autumn fruit warming to a ripe transparency in the spring sunshine. They must have come, expensively packed in sawdust, from California or have lain all winter in storage. Fruit out of season.”

(The Persimmon Tree)

In The Bride Elect a delicate young city woman is adapting to life on a sheep farm as she prepares to marry her Jim. Myra loves the landscape she sees all around her, but she is unused to the life of the farm – and Myra knows that her fiancé’s sister doesn’t think she is a suitable wife. Myra is confident of Jim’s adoration – but when his attention is momentarily turned in another direction, she needs to turn him back to her. It is a brilliant story of sly feminine manipulation.

The setting of Beauty is Strength is a beauty salon, where Ida Berrington comes to have the waves put back into her hair. Here, under the observation of the young women who see all their clients as they truly are, Mrs Berrington reflects on her life and her marriage in particular. Plans forming in her mind.

“The shreds of evidence were working like splinters in her brain. There was the letter addressed to Ced lying on the table with the other mail when she came in yesterday afternoon. She recognised Viola’s handwriting at once, large eager, rather unformed. It didn’t surprise her much, for Viola was in constant need of expression. She was for ever telephoning her friends about some new enthusiasm, writing little notes, copying sentiments that pleased her, out of the novels that she read into arty leather note books. But this wasn’t a little note. It was bulky; even in Viola’s sprawling script, a long letter. She had weighed it speculatively and put it by with an open mind. She wasn’t, she often told people – particularly Ced – a jealous wife, nor would she be but for the possessive streak as strong in her as instinct in an animal.”

(Beauty is Strength)

In The New Dress a young woman is enchanted by the new dress she has bought for what she sees as an important day out with her boyfriend – a day which will culminate in tea with his aunt. The dress has taken weeks of sacrifice to buy – and too much importance is put on to it. The day is blighted by the dress – which must be kept clean, not spoiled – so of course, it is the day itself that is ruined.

Only one story is set outside Australia – Fighting in Vienna. Kathie lives alone with her canary – and worried about getting seed for her dear little feathered friend she ventures out, persuaded that it will be safe as there hasn’t been any firing since the day before. However, as she crosses the square on the way to the shop firing does break out and Kathie is caught up in it. Lying in hospital Kathie reflects on another war and a young man she loved. The canary is left waiting in vain for her return, quite different to other stories in this collection, it’s a beautiful, deeply poignant story.

Marjorie Barnard’s stories depict many aspects of women’s lives, and by extension the lives of their men. They are gorgeous, beautifully written, very definitely my kind of stories. Written precisely and sparely – they frequently portray a world where appearances are too often the most important thing.

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The Rental Heart and other Fairytales was chosen by my very small book group for our March read. The group met last Wednesday but I wasn’t able to go – however I had already read the book. A slim collection of stories by a writer I hadn’t read before (perhaps a story in an anthology – I can’t quite remember), as someone who likes short stories, I was looking forward to it. However, it didn’t really hit the spot for me, and ultimately, I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t hate them, I really liked Logan’s writing, her imagery is richly imaginative, yet something didn’t gel with me and these stories – and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was partly my mood, because looking back there were some lovely nuggets and while about half the stories left me a bit cold – some were really very good. Kirsty Logan is clearly a good writer – I was perhaps the wrong reader.

“I met Baba Yaga at the end of childhood – past pigtails and fairytales, but not quite ready to give up on make-believe.” 

(Witch)

Twenty tales – some so short they run to little more than a few paragraphs, they all follow themes of lust and loss – with lots of lgbt characters existing in slightly altered worlds. Many characters written so well I was frustrated that they weren’t explored deeper in a longer story. Here we meet people carrying clockwork hearts inside them, lascivious queens, paper men, teenagers sporting tails and antlers, a girl searching for Baba Yaga in the woods. The tales take place in different times and different places; including nineteenth century Paris, the Isle of Skye, a strange flooded world and 1920s New Orleans.

In The Rental Heart; the opening story in the collection, a young woman finds herself returning to the heart rental shop after she meets Grace.

“The day after I met Grace – her pierced little mouth, her shitkicker boots, her hands as small as goosebumps writing numbers on my palm. The day after I met her, I went to the heart rental place.”

(The rental heart)

In A Skulk of Saints two women live in a caravan between a discount tile shop and an abandoned petrol station. They are awaiting the birth of their child – there is a gorgeous atmosphere to this story – one of several that ended a little too soon for me.

In Coin-Operated Boys a strange love triangle emerges in nineteenth century Paris between a man, a woman and a coin-operated boy. Here technology, love, jealousy and historical fiction collide in a story that could easily have been extended to fill an entire novel.

The Gracekeeper was one of my favourite stories – a story of loss – and recovery, although nothing much happens. The imagery Logan uses is really lovely.

“The graces are restless today. They pweet and muss, shuddering their wings so that the feathers stick out at defensive angles. I feel that restlessness too. When the sea is fractious like this – when it chutters and schwaks against the moorings, when it won’t talk but only mumbles – it’s difficult to think.” 

(The Gracekeeper)

Some of these stories are modern fables, some reworkings of traditional tales – others are Logan’s own. I really hope I will read Kirsty Logan again one day, as there was a lot about her writing that I really liked. If this collection had just been longer versions of about seven or eight of these stories, I would probably have loved it – so many other readers seem to have loved it, so I am rather sorry I didn’t.

My book group have now picked our next two books – which I have been forced (no really) to buy, I make myself feel better by passing on via bookcrossing the majority of my book group reads.

In April we will be reading Bookworm; A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – which seemed to be reviewed enthusiastically everywhere last year. As it didn’t fit into my A Century of Books which obsessed me all of 2018 – I resisted, and my book group waited to pick it until it was in paperback. I think it’s one we are all looking forward to.

In May we will be reading The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. When my friend messaged me after the book group on Wednesday that I missed to tell me which book had been picked – I admit – my reaction was – “what?” or words to that effect. Then I looked it up and thought – ‘oh ok that might be interesting’ – the Guardian called it “Inventive and unflashily wise about human hearts.”

Are you in a book group? – what will you be reading next with it?

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Translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson came into my life because of my very small book group, it was one I already had had tbr for a long time. Tove Jansson is beloved of many because of both her tales for children and her stories for adults. Somehow, I didn’t hear of the Moomins until I was an adult, they completely passed my childhood by. Yet, I was assured that I would love Tove Jansson, and I did, though of the two Jansson books I have read to date, A Winter Book is definitely my favourite.

Ali Smith writes a wonderful introduction to this edition. Her affection for Jansson’s storytelling is obvious.

“The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep.”

(from Snow)

I love short stories, and these are definitely the type one can read in great greedy gulps – there is a delicious calmness to Jansson’s prose. Heart-warming and vividly described – Tove Jansson brings the landscape and people of her childhood and old age to life, though largely autobiographical these pieces are stories not memoir. There is a lightness of touch here, a quiet wisdom and gentle humour – a real joy of a read.

Parts one and two of A Winter Book; Snow and Flotsam and Jetsam come originally from The Sculptor’s Daughter, stories inspired by Tove Jansson’s childhood in Helsinki. Her family part of the Swedish speaking minority in Helsinki. Beautifully, depicting the mind and imagination of a child, the collection opens with The Stone – in which a young girl finds what she believes to be an enormous rock of precious metal. With extraordinary strength and grim determination, she rolls the rock homeward.

We catch some tantalising glimpses of Tove Jansson’s bohemian household – the parents of her child characters here a sculptor and an illustrator like her own, clearly drawn from life. In Parties – a young girl delights in listening to her father’s parties from her bedroom.

“I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music, and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes.

It’s not worth looking, because if you do everything you’ve imagined disappears. It’s always the same. You can look down on them and there they are sitting on the sofa or the chairs or walking slowly up and down the room.”

(from Parties)

In other stories we meet Annie – who revers the work of Plato, and who helps the young narrator collect bird-cherry branches, as the gypsy had told her to. Poppolino, a family pet monkey, Albert a childhood friend, and Jeremiah a geologist, and an old fisherman Charlie.

There are stories of the sea, boats and flotsam and jetsam of the shore, and of course the island made famous in The Summer Book. In, The Boat and me, the girl describes the boat she was given when she was twelve, and the first solo trip she took in it.

In part three; Travelling Light, Jansson turns her attention to matters of maturity, ageing in particular. In probably the longest story in the collection; and one of my favourites, The Squirrel, an elderly woman living in isolation on an island, becomes obsessed with a squirrel who has most probably drifted over to the island on a piece of drift wood. The squirrel is not a reliable visitor – but the old woman watches out for him and discovering he has been nesting in the wood pile – divides it up between them.

“The logs must be carried, carefully, to the exact place where they were needed. The person carrying them must herself be like a log: heavy and ungainly but full of strength and potential. ‘Everything must find its place and one must try to understand what it can be used for…I carry more and more steadily now. I breathe in a new way, my sweat is salt.’”

(from The Squirrel)

Correspondence is told in letters, based on the real life correspondence of Tove Jansson with a young Japanese fan.  

These stories are pretty much little pieces of perfection, exquisitely told. I shall not wait too long before reading my other collection of Tove Jansson The Listener. I see from the contents, that the two collections have one story in common – but that doesn’t matter.

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Attia Hosain; writer, journalist and a pioneering woman of letters (so Wikepedia tells us) did not sadly produce many books. Her 1961 novel Sunlight on a Broken Column is a wonderful novel of Muslim life, the review I wrote; one of those mysterious old blog posts that still gets lots of hits years later. I’ll bet it’s on a reading list somewhere in the world. Following the partition of India, Attia Hosain moved to England. Phoenix Fled, a collection of twelve stories came first though another collection of hers; Distant Traveller was published in 2012 – which I have on kindle.

Published in 1953 – a few years after the author came to Britain with her husband, the time period of these stories is around the time of the partition of India in 1947. It therefore fitted the Librarything ‘Reading the 1940s’ event, our rules are gratifyingly loose. There are many kinds of families in these stories – and family is our theme for January. Newlyweds, mothers and daughters-in-law, servants who have been part of a household for a lifetime, mothers and sons all play a part in these stories. In her introduction to my VMC edition Anita Desai says…

“They show her appreciation of the warmth, supportiveness, laughter and emotional richness to be found in the joint family as well as an acknowledgement of how often the joint family could become a prison and a punishment.”
(Anita Desai – Introduction to Pheonix Fled)

Phoenix Fled, the opening title story is a sharp reminder of the violence and fear that came with partition. An elderly woman, who has lived for so long in her village no one can remember when she wasn’t there, is swept up in the terrifying divisions which pitch neighbour against neighbour.

“The soldiers had driven into dust-clouds that billowed thick over the fields, thinning into an emptiness over distances that held a threat.
She did not feel it nor did the children, but the others lived heavily under its weight. The familiar stillness of their surroundings was an accomplice to their solace-seeking minds, as to hers. It could not come to them from out of known distances, to this village, these huts, themselves, the bestiality that was real only to their fear. The village lived uneasily, the breath of its life quickened or caught when some outsider brought chill confirmation.”

Attia Hosain’s writing is very beautiful – I found so many passages to appreciate and read over. There is also quite a lot of sadness – and although I appreciated all these stories – each one is a perfect evocation of time and place – they did affect my mood a little. I was possibly already a little fed up – so don’t let that put you off – these stories are brilliant in their way – and Attia Hosain’s writing is superb.

In, The Street of the Moon – a marriage is arranged between a young servant girl and a middle-aged cook, with an opium habit. Kalloo, who already has an adult son from his first marriage is dismayed. Hasina is a new edition to the household – and is causing problems with her laughter and her cheeky disposition, so Kalloo the cook is told to marry her – Kalloo has been driven to distraction by Hasina’s teasing, the marriage seems doomed before it begins. You can’t help but feel for this girl whose unconventional behaviour means she is palmed off on someone who doesn’t want her around either. Soon after the wedding, Kalloo persuades his work-shy son to come and work with him – the inevitable disaster follows.

One of my favourite stories was Time is Unredeemable – it was also one of the ones I found saddest. Bano; has been living with her in laws for years, waiting patiently for the husband she barely knows to return from England following his studies, he was delayed further by the war. She has almost given up hope that he will ever return, and then one day the cable announcing his return arrives. Bano can think of nothing else, everything she has dreamed of is about to come true. She starts to plan what she will wear and enlists the help of an old family friend in her search for the perfect outfit. There is a terrible inevitability to Bano’s reality – one of those stories I kept hoping would turn out differently to how I knew it was going to. Bano in her red sari and belted coat was the character I kept thinking about after I had finished the book.

“The red net sari with its golden flowers spread stiffly out from below the coat tight-buttoned across her chest and hips, its belt measuring her thickened wait. The powder was too light on her skin, the rouge too pink, and the mouth held tight in shyness smudged red by inexpert hands. She looked up and away, and her eyes were large, soft and timid supplicants.”

In The Loss a much loved family servant who was once the wet nurse for the daughter of the house is robbed of her life savings – money and jewellery she kept in a box under the bed in her tiny room. The daughter of the house is distressed and humbled by the woman’s grief over her loss – and seeks to try and unravel the mystery even getting the local police involved. When the old woman’s son visits, the younger woman’s suspicions are roused.

phoenix fledAn idealistic political worker in Gossamer Thread faces disillusionment – as the wife he looks down upon and married merely to please his mother urges him to help a friend caught up in a political demonstration. The husband is an intellectual – priding himself on his understanding of complex issues, he sees his wife as decoration, he is dismissive of her questions – and yet when the knock comes at the door – he is incapable of stepping up.

In these stories we see characters lives shaped by their fate – kismet. The old traditions come up against the new, modern more westernised world which is threatening to destroy the traditional culture. In these stories Attia Hossain shows a deep, though realistic affection for these old traditions

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This year the Librarything Virago group are reading the 1940s, a project that is right up my reading alley. The majority of us I think will be sticking to our VMC and Persephone editions, with perhaps a few Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press sneaking in. Each month has a different theme – with our January reading focused on family.

Margaret Bonham’s story itself is told in the preface to this edition by her daughter Cary Bazalgette. Margaret Bonham and her husband had lived in Devon before and after the Second World War, and it is this area of the country that Cary Bazalgette says is present throughout these stories. Place is always so important to me, and I know Devon well and so these stories resonated with me from that point of view. The Train and the Gun feature the train line that runs along the coast between Dawlish and Teignmouth – a place I know very well, Sidmouth and Ashburton also feature though aren’t named. A story called The River in which a fond father goes to great lengths to please his little daughter on their afternoon walks by the river – takes place along the banks of the River Yeo.

In 1948 Margaret Bonham left her children when her marriage broke up and didn’t see them again until 1950 when custody arrangements were settled. Bazalgette and her brother didn’t live with their mother – and so for her daughter particularly these stories stood in for her – to be read and re-read over and over.

There are mothers and children throughout this volume of fifteen stories, some fathers too, though few of the children featured have two parents. I thoroughly enjoyed this whole collection, stories of great subtlety, they turned out to be exactly the kind of stories I expect from Persephone, which are the kinds of short stories I like best.

The title story comes first, and it shows to perfection the author’s skill in capturing a brief moment. It concerns a group of English girls on the French coast, who enlist the help of Mademoiselle – their French governess – in pleading their cause in a visit to The Casino. Valentine rather wishes that Giselle didn’t have to come, and Rhys is not sure she wants to go at all – after all anything might happen at a casino. Kitty suggests Giselle will ‘make it look better – in case they are raped.’ Permission granted – though they are only to be allowed to go until eight o’clock – preparations get underway, and all the while Rhys feels uneasy about the adventure. If you’re looking for sudden dramatic endings, Bonham is not that writer – here Bonham’s brilliance is in the disappointment of a longed for treat.

One of my other favourite stories was Vicky – clearly set in Sidmouth – where the Vicky of the title lives with her three aunts, Agnes, Marianne and Violet.

“On a painted iron seat facing the sea the three aunts waited. Behind them the row of flat Georgian houses, their gardens gritty with sand, were closed and withdrawn from the sun, the striped blinds lowered. At either end the cliffs, like slices of pink cake with green icing, shut out the view and enclosed the bay.”

(Vicky)

The aunts remember the past, when they were young girls and motor cars were new. It was a time when young men danced with them and took them driving – yet they never married. Their brother George married late in life – and Vicky has never been told much about him. An old family friend Mrs Casey and her daughter Henrietta pay a visit, and the girls are thrown together – taking a walk down to the sea. Here, Vicky’s certainty is shaken when a tragic secret is revealed.

In Annabel’s Mother Bonham has created a child of rather monstrous precocity. Her mother feels unequal to dealing with her – Annabel’s constant prattle about things she has read or learned her incessant questioning has worn her mother down to such an extent that she sees that all Annabel’s school holidays are spent at hotels.

“‘Mummy,’ she said, ‘do you know why there’s an extra high tide today?’
‘No, dear.’
‘Mummy, you are dull; don’t you really know?’
‘No, dear; why?’
‘It’s because of the moon.’
‘I think we better start unpacking.’
‘Mummy don’t you want to learn?’”
(Annabel’s Mother)

Having had her scant knowledge scorned by her twelve-year-old daughter for so long, Annabel’s mother; Mrs Keven has no confidence at all in challenging the confident assertions that Annabel comes up with. As their latest holiday gets under way with Annabel continuing to decry her mother’s past schooling and intelligence Mrs Keven locks eyes with another resident Mr Ferris. In Ferris, Annabel has quite possibly met her match, and Mrs Keven is given reason to be glad of this break after all.

The two Mrs Reeds features Lucy; a woman who almost scandalises the maternity ward completely by sailing through her daughter’s birth with breezy unconcern. When another woman comes into the bed next to her, Lucy discovers she is called Mrs Reed, which initially amuses her because she was once called Mrs Reed, when married to her first husband. She announces to the ward – so there should be no confusion, that she divorced him. Lucy’s husband, a farmer is Louis, a Frenchman – who we see more of in the next story featuring this couple – and Lucy must enlist his help when she discovers that Mrs Reed’s husband is indeed her own first husband.

In The Miss – Lucy and Louis have an evening away from their children at the cinema – date night 1940s style. They meet a woman there – they kind of woman the two of them call ‘a miss.’ Intrigued and amused a little by her – they offer her a lift and end up getting invited in. It gradually becomes clear that their ‘miss’ is rather an odd character.

the casino

Bonham’s storytelling is excellent – it is clear that the short story form suited her perfectly. She did publish one novel in 1951 – but that doesn’t seem to have been successful. I am sorry there isn’t more out there to read by Margaret Bonham. This was an excellent pick for our ‘Reading the 1940s’ – as there are many different kinds of family portrayed here.

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The complete stories murel spark

When I am not reading books for #WITmonth or Virago books for All Virago All August I have carried on reading short stories from The Complete Short stories – and though I am still not finished I hope to be by the end of the month. It is difficult to review a six-hundred-page collection in one, it only ever possible to highlight a few pieces that stand out.

Last month I reviewed the first five stories in the collection – linked as they were with an African setting – they seemed to stand apart. Having read more of Spark’s stories now, those stories still do stand apart. I am still thoroughly enjoying Spark’s shorter fiction though some of the stories fade quite quickly from my mind afterwards.

In these stories we have Spark’s familiar wit, and with her wonderful eye for the absurd, she lifts the veil on the seemingly respectable, exposing what lies beneath.

The Snobs is a story set in Dijon where an ordinary English couple have unexpectedly inherited a château. When former bus driver’s wife Anne meets the Ringer-Smiths outside a gift shop, they are looking lost, struggling with their map – and she invites them to the château for tea. In the Ringer-Smiths, Anne soon detects that dreaded species, the château grabber.

“I could see, already in Anne’s mind, the thought: “I have to get rid of these people or they’ll stay for dinner and then all night. They are château-grabbers.” Anne had often lamented to me about the château-grabbers of her later life. People who didn’t want to know her when she was obscure and a bus driver’s wife now wanted to know her intimately.
(The Snobs)

In her depiction of the dreadful Ringer-Smiths and the poor harried inhabitants of the château trying to get rid of them, Spark is at her humorous best.

In The Dragon – we find ourselves in Italy. A seamstress is hosting a little party – and she is very much afraid The Dragon may spoil it.

“We were in a shady part of the garden. It was six o’clock on a hot evening in the north of Italy. It was my garden, my party. The Dragon came oozing through the foliage. She was holding her drink, a Pimm’s No. 1, and was followed by a tall, strikingly handsome truck-driver whom she had brought along to the party on the spur of the moment. To her dismay, discernible only to myself, he was a genial, easy-mannered young man, rather amused to be taking half-an-hour off the job with his truck parked outside the gate. I knew very well that when she had picked him up at the bar across the street she had hoped he would be an embarrassment, a nuisance.”
(The Dragon)

The Dragon – we discover is an employee – who has not quite turned out to be the paragon of trouble saving efficiency she was employed to be. Here we meet one of those terrible, managing people who take over – making the lives around them quite unendurable.

Themes we see in several of Spark’s novels are present in these stories too. Death, and things unexplained rear their head in stories like the marvellously chilling The Girl I Left Behind Me – which I can’t say too much about – but it has a splendidly Sparkian ending. In Harper and Wilton, two characters from an unfinished story written by the narrator – appear – they are Edwardian suffragettes – they demand that the writer give them substance – or else they will haunt her. Writers appear several times in these stories, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Comforters. In The Pearly Shadow – a doctor is consulted by a shadowy character, who has been tormenting another of the doctor’s patients, it is, quite frankly, bizarre.

Many of Spark’s story openings are great – I glance at the first page, having been about to put the book down, and think oh no I’ll just read this one too. In Daisy Overend – Spark combines this ability to grab her readers instantly -with her ability to portray a character in quite a unique way.

“It is hardly ever that I think of her, but sometimes, if I happen to pass Clarges Street or Albemarle Street on a sunny afternoon, she comes to mind. Or if, in a little crowd waiting to cross the road, I hear behind me two women meet, and the one exclaim: “Darling!” (or “Bobbie!” or “Goo!”) and the other answer: “Goo!” (or “Billie!” or “Bobbie!” or “Darling!”) – if I hear these words, spoken in a certain trill which betokens the period 1920–29, I know that I have by chance entered the world of Daisy Overend, Bruton Street, WI.”
(Daisy Overend)

mde

Another of my favourite stories; Come Along, Marjorie – introduces us to another memorable character; the silent, Marjorie Pettigrew. –Along with the narrator she is one of the ‘pilgrims’ at a Catholic retreat, where most of the inhabitants were ‘nervous cases’. The narrator is the wonderfully cynical Gloria. Blending Spark’s ever-present wit and eye for the peculiar, with those serious themes she seems always to return to – religion and mental health, she explores how people react to those they deem odd or different.

“‘Neurotics never go mad,’ my friends had always told me. Now I realized the distinction between neurosis and madness, and in my agitation I half-envied the woman beyond my bedroom wall, the sheer cool sanity of her behaviour within the limits of her impracticable mania. Only the very mad, I thought, can come out with the information ‘The Lord is Risen’, in the same factual way as one might say, ‘You are wanted on the telephone,’ regardless of the time and place.”
(Come Along, Marjorie)

So, I hope I have managed to give a little flavour of this collection – which I still have to finish! If you have yet to read Muriel Spark’s stories, then I heartily recommend them. Please forgive the number of quotes, I could have easily included far more than I have.

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