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I do love a book of Persephone short stories, I have now read all the volumes they publish. Whether it be an anthology like this one, or one of the twelve collections by Dorothy Whipple, Margaret Bonham, Katherine Mansfield, Frances Towers and others, I have loved them all. Alongside these writers of other Persephone short story collections, happily sit many other noteworthy writers including; Winifred Holtby, Colette, Lettice Cooper, Rose Macaulay and Carol Shields. In fact, this volume – along with the First book of Persephone Short stories is pretty much my perfect reading material.   

The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories span very nearly a century of women’s writing. Thirty stories arranged chronologically, the first story first appearing in 1896 the final story by Rosamunde Pilcher dating from 1984. Now this volume features one story from each of those other twelve collections, nine stories previously published in the quarterly/biannually magazine, with nine more stories selected especially for this publication. Now here is where I make what might seem a surprising admission. I have loved the quarterly/biannually ever since I began collecting Persephone books, and I eagerly read the reviews and other bits and pieces, however I rarely get around to reading the short stories. For someone who loves short stories that is odd I suppose – but it did mean that there were more stories in this volume I was reading for the first time.

Quite frankly though, those stories that I was reading for the second time were just as good – or even better – second time around. For instance, I was able to anticipate the ending of After Tea (1941) by Dorothy Whipple quite eagerly, knowing what was coming didn’t spoil it at all, I cheered for Christine, trapped in a dull, household with no freedom – all over again. Similarly encountering Katherine Mansfield’s Her First Ball (1921) was a delight, I could read and re-read Mansfield’s stories at any time.  

“She quite forgot to be shy; she forgot how in the middle of dressing she had sat down on the bed with one shoe off and one shoe on and begged her mother to ring up her cousins and say she couldn’t go after all. And the rush of longing she had had to be sitting on the verandah of their forsaken up-country home, listening to the baby owls crying ‘More pork’ in the moonlight, was changing to a rush of joy so sweet that it was hard to bear alone.”

(Her First Ball (1921) Katherine Mansfield)

A few stories, I’ll admit I had forgotten anyway, the Mollie Panter-Downes stories I read so long ago it was almost like reading them for the first time. A Year of Decision (1944) in which a husband; Mark Goring, with ‘a safe’ though important desk job during the war, longs for service, and rather envies the former school friend whose death he sees announced in the newspaper. His wife, in the country with two young children, is naturally grateful that her husband comes home each weekend. Then Mark is called into to see his boss with unexpected results.

“Mark thought of Janet briefly before he nodded and said ‘fine’, and they settled down to details. When he finally got back to his own office, he still couldn’t believe it. After four years of sitting in one place with his nose to the grindstone, the idea of getting on a plane and going somewhere made him feel like a child let out of school.”

(A Year of Decision (1944) by Mollie Panter-Downes)

It’s always hard to review a large volume of stories, all I ever try to do is give something of a flavour. The collection opens with a lovely bittersweet little story; In Dull Brown (1896) by Evelyn Sharp in which a young woman; Jean, who goes out to teach three children each day in their home, meets a young man; Tom Unwin by chance on the omnibus, they exchange a few words. They bump into one another again, then lose sight of each other, each of them clearly remembering the other in the meantime, before meeting again in the park weeks later. Jean thinks young men prefer women who don’t work, who like her pretty younger sister Nancy, stay home by the fire, ready for any gentleman that should call. She is hugely excited therefore when their friendship develops to the point when she can invite Tom home.

“‘Oh, here you are,’ cried Nancy, gliding off the sofa and putting her arms round her in her pretty affectionate manner. ‘Poor Mr Unwin has been waiting quite an hour for you. Whatever made you so late?’

Jean disengaged herself a little roughly, and held out her hand to Tom.

‘Have you been very bored? She asked him with a slight curl of her lip.

‘That could hardly be the case in Miss Nancy’s company,’ he replied in his best manner.”

(In Dull Brown 1896 by Evelyn Sharp)

The final story is Gilbert (1984) by Rosamunde Pilcher in which we meet Bill Rawlins, recently married to Clodagh – making him step-father to two little girls. The children have three pets, Gilbert is a goldfish. One Sunday morning Bill finds himself tested in his new role when, while his wife sleeps, Emily; one of his step-daughters discovers Gilbert floating in the fish tank.

In between these two stories are stories from both Britain and North America, collectively they reflect those changing decades. Several stories are about war in some form. In The Casualty List (1932) by Winifred Holtby – on Armistice Day, an elderly woman looks back to the time of WW1 when she had read the casualty lists in the paper, rolled bandages and knitted socks. Monsieur Rose (1941) by Irène Némirovskytells the story of a wealthy man’s flight from Paris as the Germans arrive.   In Miss Anstruther’s Letters (1942) by Rose Macaulay we find the titular character searching desperately through the rumble of her home for something irreplaceable.

There are also, as I mentioned some wonderful stories from North America including The Bedquilt (1906) by Dorothy Canfield Fisher which tells of the one great moment of joy in a small, forgotten life. Going Home (1942) by Sally Benson in which a servant in New York sets out on a trip home to Washington. Accidents (1983) by Carol Shields in which a man on holiday with his wife is hospitalised following an accident. His wife takes a motherly interest in the young Englishman in the next bed, alone and far from home, very badly injured.

Well I could go on, there are so many stories I haven’t talked about – but this post is already far too long. Suffice to say I can’t recommend this collection highly enough – especially to readers of Twentieth Century women writers.

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With thanks to Virago for providing me with this beautiful designer edition.

I love Edith Wharton and The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton had been on my wish list for ages – so I was very excited to receive this collection from Virago.

There is a long tradition of the telling of ghost stories, an oral tradition that saw people telling and re-telling the stories known in their own families. People have long delighted in the sharing of such stories. It seems we continue to love to scare ourselves. These stories are very much in the best tradition of ghost stories – they give one a little shiver down the spine, they are deliciously creepy – but they never descend into absolute horror – I can’t really see them as nightmare inducing. They are understated, more Gothic than frightening, beautifully written of course with well-drawn characters.

Edith Wharton’s stories are set in both America and England stories which appeared over a period of more than thirty years, in the first half of the last century. They bear witness to Wharton’s own fascination with hauntings, bewitchments and spirits. From childhood Edith Wharton had been terrified of ghost stories, and in these stories, she has channelled her fears in tales which expose the faults in us mere mortals; betrayal, grief, greed and the misuse of power. They are all endlessly readable.

There are eleven stories in this collection – none of them too short – they are to my mind the perfect length, perfect to settle down with over a cuppa when you get in from work – or at night before bed. I don’t feel I can talk about each story, so as I generally do with story collections, I shall instead just give a flavour of the whole collection and talk about a few favourites.

The collection opens with The Lady Maid’s Bell narrated by the lady maid of the title. Having recently recovered from typhoid, Hartley is in search of a new position. She is told about a Mrs Brympton, a young woman though something of an invalid, she lives all year round at her country home on the Hudson river. Hartley is warned that the house is large and gloomy, and that the lady’s husband is often away. Hartley feels that a quiet place in the country will suit her well having so recently been ill. On arrival at Brympton Place, she is greeted by Mrs Blinder the cook and a friendly housemaid Agnes. Some things feel strange, she hears about her predecessor so long devoted to Mrs Brympton who died the year before. It is explained that should Mrs Brympton want her, Agnes will fetch Hartley, that there will be no summons by bell – as is usual. So, why does Hartley wake suddenly to the sound of a bell? and who was the woman she saw in the corridor outside her room?

In Afterward an American couple seek to buy a house in England, Mary Boyne and her husband settle on Lyng in Dorsetshire. Mary asks about the presence of ghosts and is told: ‘oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.’ It is further explained that she will never know it till long afterward. Settling happily at Lyng Mary and her husband Ned laughingly look out for their ghost that they will not know about till afterward – not really feeling too worried. However, when Mary sees a figure walking toward the house as she and Ned watch from the roof – she starts to get a feeling for the trouble that will follow.

“Distinctly, yes she now recalled that she had seen, as she glanced, a shadow of anxiety, of perplexity rather, fall across his face; and, following his eyes, had beheld a figure of a man in loose greyish clothes, as it appeared to her – who was sauntering down the lime avenue to the court with the doubtful gait of a stranger who seeks his way.”

For me one of the most enthralling and memorable stories is Kerfol, set in Brittany, where the narrator has been urged by friends to buy a property going – they say – for a song. Deciding to go and view the property the young man is shocked to find his entry to the house is prevented by a pack of vicious, though silent dogs. The reason for the presence of these spectral dogs is told in the story of Anne de Cornault who lived in the house with her husband in the seventeenth century.

In Bewitched we are back in America, and in wintry rural New England landscape three local men, a farmer and two cutters, call at the house of Saul Rutledge another cutter. There they encounter Saul’s wife – beside herself with a tale of witchcraft – she claims that the dead daughter of one man has bewitched her husband over the previous year – leaving him a shadow of his former self. The men, shocked and horrified at such a tale – set out to uncover the validity of her strange claim.  

“As he came in he faced the light from the north window, and Bosworth’s first thought was that he looked like a drowned man fished out from under the ice – ‘self-drowned’ he added. But the snow light plays cruel tricks with a man’s colour, and even with the shape of his features; it must have been partly that, Bosworth reflected, which transformed Saul Rutledge from the straight muscular fellow he had been a year before into the haggard wretch now before them.”

Mr Jones tells the story of another English haunted house. When Lady Jane Lynke inherits the beautiful country house of Bells, she swears she will never leave it. She hasn’t reckoned on Mr Jones however – for everything that she wants to do in her new home she is told by the old servant that Mr Jones won’t like it. Whether it is lighting a fire in the parlour or unlocking the door to the muniment room Mr Jones is apparently consulted and his disapproval communicated to her ladyship. However, Lady Jane has never seen Mr Jones – and when she and her friend begin to investigate, they discover a Mr Jones had been an important servant many decades earlier.

In Pomegranate seed a young woman who is quite newly married to a man who had been previously widowed, is alarmed at the sight of a letter lying on the table addressed to her husband. The letter is one of a series of identical letters, to which her husband reacts very oddly. She becomes fixated on the letters, which her husband won’t talk to her about – and the idea that the writer, who she guesses is a woman – has some terrible hold over him, that the wife is desperate to free him of.

All in all, a pretty perfect collection of stories for the time of year. Ghost stories read well throughout the winter though, so I think this would make a great gift for any Edith Wharton fan come Christmas.

I am currently away on holiday, and there is no Wi-Fi where I am staying (this post uploaded courtesy of a café with sea view.) So, this post will have to suffice until I get home next weekend.

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With thanks to Virago for the review copy

Over the summer I read The Wedding by Dorothy West – and it immediately made me want to read everything she wrote – it’s a sadly very short list. I do have her first novel The Living is Easy somewhere on my tbr – which I will read in the fullness of time, knowing there will be no more.

The Richer, The Poorer is a collection of stories and autobiographical pieces, they are an absolute delight. Here Dorothy West shows her brilliance in the shorter form, she illuminates the struggles of ordinary families, the sad, disappointment of childhood, the misunderstandings that exist between the old and young.

In these stories we meet people dreading the visit of the investigator – who decides whether they will receive welfare relief. There are families holding funerals, girls renting typewriters, people living in sad marriages, a forty year old man trying again for his bar exam, children whose small eyes are opened to the frailties of their parents, people who have spent all their lives working to avoid the poverty of their childhoods. In each story, Dorothy West’s characters step from the page fully formed, they are clearly the people she met during the time she worked in Harlem as welfare investigator and relief worker.

There are seventeen stories in this collection, and many are very short – yet for me at least not unsatisfying. I delighted in gulping down one after another, after another. Following on from the stories, are thirteen autobiographical pieces, sketches and reminiscences from Dorothy West’s long life, many harking back to her childhood. With so many pieces in this collection I can only really give a flavour of the whole.

In these stories people acknowledge the history of slavery – many characters in these stories people born in the South but who moved North to escape the prejudice so prevalent in the South, but something of the place we once called home always pulls us back.

“He shuffled down the street, an abject little man of fifty-odd years, in an ageless overcoat that flapped in the wind. He was cold, he hated the North, and particularly Boston, and saw suddenly a barefoot pickaninny sitting on a fence in the hot, Southern sun and a piece of steaming corn bread and a piece of fried salt pork in either grimy hand.”

(The Typewriter)

The collection opens with The Typewriter a middle aged man plods home after a day at work as an office building janitor. His daughter has been learning to type on a rented typewriter – and he isn’t looking forward to the sound of it echoing through the apartment. However, he is a fond parent and he wants to help his daughter – so when she asks him to dictate made up letters for her to type, he obliges – and his letters, firing his imagination, open up a whole new world for him.

In the title story; The Richer, the poorer – two sisters who have lived their lives very differently are brought together again by the circumstances of old age. While one sister, saved and worked hard all her life – sacrificing many comforts to the drive to ensuring she has money for her old age – the other sister did the exact opposite.  

“Over the years Lottie had urged Bess to prepare for her old age. Over the years Bess had lived each day as if there were no other. Now they were both past sixty, the time for summing up. Lottie had a bank account that had never grown lean. Bess had the clothes on her back, and the rest of her worldly possessions in a battered suitcase. 

Lottie had hated being a child, hearing her parents skimping and scraping. Bess had never seemed to notice. All she ever wanted was to go outside and play. She learned to skate on borrowed skates. She rode a borrowed bicycle. Lottie couldn’t wait to grow up and buy herself the best of everything. 

As soon as anyone would hire her, Lottie put herself to work. She minded babies, she ran errands for the old.”

(The Richer, The Poorer)

In the stories The Five-Dollar Bill and The Penny we see both the desperation for a small amount of money and the terrible toll poverty can have on children. In the first of these, a child is made aware of the duplicitousness of her mother. While in the second story a little boy is joyful at the gift of a penny from his father – but his joy is destined to turn to misery – and have unexpected consequences, thanks to the interference of a local do-gooder with an agenda.

In Jack in the Pot Mrs Edmunds wins fifty-five dollars on bingo – a fabulous sum of money at the time. The winnings bring a terrible fear however, as she and her husband are awaiting a visit from the welfare investigator. She is terrified of being sanctioned. She tells her husband she won five dollars and they celebrate with a wonderful dinner. Meanwhile, a neighbour suffers a terrible tragedy – and knowing his need of the exact sum of money she has hidden away Mrs Edmunds is horribly conflicted. We meet another welfare investigator in the story Mammy in which an investigator must follow up on a claimant’s previous employment – in this story we meet the mammy of the title; Mrs Mason, who has suddenly left her employer and refuses to return. There’s a lot that is uncomfortable about the relationship between the wealthy employer and her servant – too much that reminds the reader of the imbalance of power.

The autobiographical pieces that follow the stories are simply wonderful. In these pieces West remembers her middle class Boston childhood, paying tribute to her fabulous mother. She recollects the summers spent so happily on the island; Martha’s Vineyard, and the people who would come and share the family summer cottage with them. She also recalls a trip to Moscow, and the time she spent working as part of the Harlem Renaissance. We are left with the impression of a fascinating woman, who lived a long and happy life.

The Richer, The Poorer is a wonderful immersive collection, the themes are universal and West’s writing compassionate and richly observant.

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The Harsh voice is a collection of four short novels (four long short stories is probably more accurate) that each deal with corrupting influence of money and hate. The title coming from a poem by Richard Wynne Errington.

“Speaks the harsh voice

We hear when money talks, or hate,

Then comes the softest answer.”

First published in 1935 the stories straddle the period dominated by the Wall Street crash of 1929. Rebecca West had travelled to America several times, and in these four brilliant pieces – three of which are set in the US – she perfectly recreates an American voice. Through these stories we see something of the America that Rebecca West experienced during the 1920s.

Life Sentence concerns both the corruption of money and the hate and misery that can come out of an unsuitable marriage. Corrie Dickson is a good natured young man when he marries his fiancé Josephine against his better judgement. Corrie had somewhat half-heartedly tried to break off the engagement, not counting on the iron will of the sweet little girl he was engaged to. Josie never really forgives him for what Corries later refers to as his attack of cold feet. Corries’s uncertainty on the eve of their wedding overshadows their whole marriage – and in time he begins to see his wife as two people, Josie the soft, lovable girl he fell in love with and Josephine an unforgiving, ambitious woman chasing money. She has become a strident, accusatory woman, who is about a lot more than mere motherhood or marriage.

“And as he knelt by the bed where she had cast herself, and whispered to her that he could not bear it if she would not turn her head that way, that something grew colder still and said, in time to his heartbeat. ‘This is a life sentence, this is a life sentence.’”

Josephine represents a new breed of American woman that was emerging during this period, confident businesswomen taking their place alongside men.

There is no conversation opens in Paris, Etienne de Sevenac a vain French aristocrat who prides himself on his youthful looks and success with women, relates to an unnamed friend how he fell foul of American businesswoman; Nancy Sarle. Etienne has lost – or is about to lose – everything. He’s never worked, relying on his inheritance to fund the lifestyle he enjoys so much. Etienne’s listener (we find out more about her later) is fascinated by Nancy Sarle. She travels to America, infiltrating the very society that will, eventually bring her face to face with this infamously, powerful businesswoman.

This story is particularly strong, it explores the nature of hate and revenge and more importantly the misconceptions between people. Nancy and Etienne are so different to one another – their concerns and experiences such that each was completely incapable of understanding the other. Rebecca West’s characterisation here – as in all four of these pieces is brilliant – the voices of her characters authentic and believably of the times.

The Salt of the Earth is the only story in this collection set in England, it would be hard to pick a favourite piece in The Harsh Voice, but this one might slightly have the edge for me. In this piece West introduces us to another wonderfully monstrous character in Alice Pemberton. Alice is the salt of the earth, an Englishwoman who likes to help everyone around her – her mother, her siblings, their spouses and children – she just wants to ensure they don’t continue to make the mistakes she sees them making. However, her help is destructive, she appears to be utterly unaware of the effect she has. Alice’s husband sees it all though, and so when Alice returns from a visit to her mother, he tries to talk to her about it.

Alice has been ill, and when she leaves her mother’s house to return home, her mother is so relieved to be rid of her, she can’t hide it – and no one at home is pleased to see her. Alice approaches home, thinking she will catch the servants out – but her mother has called ahead – knowing what would lie in store for the poor servants if anything is out of place.

“Of course the servants adored her. Well, so they might. She knew she had an almost perfect manner with subordinates, and she really took trouble over training them and thinking out devices for ridding them of their little faults. She would never need to part with her servants, if it was not for the curious vein of madness running through all women of that class, which invariably came out sooner or later in some wild attack of causeless rage.”

The reader suspects, what Alice’s fate will be, the clues are there from the start – but that just makes the story all the more compelling. West builds the suspense wonderfully in this story, and it was probably that along with its very Englishness which made me love it as much as I did.

The final story in this quartet is The Abiding Vision, a story about the destructive power of money, but also a story about love. Sam Hartley is a self-made man, he has risen from rough beginnings in Butte, Montana to Park Avenue in New York. His wife Lulah has been by his side throughout, but now as Sam has reached his peak of success in middle age, his beloved, kindly Lulah is looking and feeling her age. Sam takes a mistress, a chorus girl named Lily. For Lily, in the beginning at least, their arrangement is a business deal – and for Sam, still committed to his evenings with Lulah, and taking care of her, it’s exactly what he wants. Years pass, and Lulah becomes ill, and Sam is hit hard by the Wall Street crash.

These stories are brilliant, compulsively readable, portraying the America of the 1920s particularly well. One thing that troubled me; Rebecca West puts some rather unpleasant Antisemitism into the mouths and thoughts of a few of her characters. Thoughts prevalent at the time no doubt, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something West was portraying as being authentic of these types of people at this time, or whether in it we see something of her own attitudes. I tend to assume the former.

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Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

When I bought this little collection of stories, I did so because I wanted to learn something about a country that I don’t know much about. I also wasn’t aware just how small a collection it was. As it was, I read it in the car on the way home from Devon last Saturday.

Before I started reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, I had to ask myself what I knew about Sudan – and the answer was not much. My impressions of the country coming almost entirely from BBC news reports. I found myself googling pictures of the cities in Sudan so I could at least have some realistic images of the places I was reading about.

Rania Mamoun is a Sudanese author, journalist and activist, Thirteen Months of Sunrise is her debut collection of stories, though she has previously published two novels in Arabic.

“Thirteen is not a superstitious or unlucky number, it’s the number of months in a year in Ethiopia.

But that’s another story.”

There are ten stories in a collection that only runs to 70 pages, some are really very short indeed. What I found particularly fascinating was how over the course of all the stories a portrait of modern Sudan starts to emerge.

The collection opens with the title story, in which a young woman working in a computer shop meets an Ethiopian man. She fixes his computer and they start to get to know each other. They talk about Abyssinian culture and start spending more time together.

“We laughed a lot that day, and when he said, ‘I feel at home in this country,’ I was filled with joy that I’d managed to ease his sharp loneliness.”

In Passing, a young woman mourns her father – hears his voice asking why she never became a doctor. She remembers Eid, the day her father became ill. It’s a poignant reminder, should we need it, that whoever we are, wherever we may happen to live, the loss of a parent is always seismic, whatever it is that roots you to this earth is severely shaken.

“Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’”

In Doors, a man leaves his home for a new job. The water isn’t on that morning, he hasn’t paid the bill, the bathroom door is riddled with holes, but nothing can spoil his good mood. A new job, things are looking up. I read on with a sinking feeling.

“He reached the businessman’s office on the second floor, and gazed at the beautiful door, solid and well made. It must be from a factory that makes doors and windows and other things, or maybe it’s imported, he thought to himself. At any rate, it definitely hadn’t come from a workshop in the nearby industrial zone.

A sleek, elegant plaque was affixed up high, engraved with the word DIRECTOR.

He felt the door, how cold it was, and took a deep breath. He grasped the handle and said to himself: I’ve done it; at last I’ve made it into the world.”

In A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle a woman wonders about the elderly woman who appears to have chosen to sleep on the ground near the mosque wall. She’s made a home of sorts under the neem tree, but other people in the neighbourhood said she used to own a house, has children and was tricked out of her money by ‘Madam Cash’. Some people call her a mad woman, the narrator wonders why she is all alone here, why does she keep running away from her family.

In other stories; a woman goes to a charity office day after day to beg for the money needed to help her dying son, children go hungry, a woman travels by bus from one city to another watching a fly on the window. They are stories of ordinary people, the destitute and the lost, in the midst of which we witness those things which make life so difficult for people in Sudan.

Rania Mamoun’s thought provoking collection explores isolation and estrangement within Sudanese urban life. Here is the deep love of a woman for her country and she writes about it with a complete understanding.

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Translated from French by Faith Evans.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy

It’s not very long since I last read Madeleine Bourdouxhe but this little collection from Pushkin Press was just so perfect for #Witmonth I couldn’t possibly hang on to it any longer. I love the cover image – what a fabulous attitude.

Seven of these eight stories have a woman right at the heart of them, just one story concerns a man. Taking place in Belgium and France just before or just after the Second World War, the period during which most of them were written these stories depict ordinary women. Women who are reflective, lonely or locked in unsatisfying relationships. Three of the stories were written much later as Faith Evans explains in her introduction. The occupation overshadows many of these beautiful stories – with two of the stories, the first and the last based quite heavily on Bourdouxhe’s own experiences.

In the title story; A Nail, A Rose Irene walks homeward through the icy and darkness, ruminating on her failed relationship. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man from behind, he is wielding a hammer somewhat half-heartedly. Irene engages the man in conversation – he helps her stem the bleeding, walks her home – he is oddly childlike in his eagerness to please.

“He got out his handkerchief and tried to clean her hair, to staunch the wound. She was standing up, her heart racing. A man was wiping blood from her hair – and although he was doing it gently, she was in pain. He was holding the torch on a level with their faces, and she could see his pale greyish skin and the lock of brown hair that fell on to his forehead. He’d pushed his cap back and his face looked young and very thin. It was the face of an archangel or a fool: that look could belong to either one or the other.”

From here the attacker seems to begin to romantically pursue Irene – who appears less alarmed by this behaviour than one might imagine. The whole story has a bizarreness that can only come from real life. It’s a fabulous opening to an excellent collection.

Five of the stories are titled with the names of their central characters; Anna, Louise, Leah, Clara, Blanche and René. Here we have housewives who dream about the possibility of another life; one of them Anna is fascinated by the woman across the road – who like Anna is living above a garage, serving petrol to travellers who come along, but the other woman has a fancy chignon in her hair. Leah is involved with strikers; Leah finds herself taking drastic action to help the strike achieve its desired ends. Louise is a maid who longs to escape the drudgery of her life, she spends her day looking forward to the evening when she will go out, have a drink and maybe speak to men. She dreams of being friends with her employer – Madame – and tries on Madam’s coat. René is a hairdresser – who has an odd slightly dreamlike, fantastical encounter with one of his clients.

Sous le pont Mirabeau is the longest story in the collection, published here for the first time in English. The illustrations which first accompanied it reproduced with it. It is a story, which like the opening story is based on events in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s own life.

“There were people everywhere, men, women and children, twenty or twenty five in a lorry, seven or eight in a vehicle meant for four. She was stretched out in the back of a lorry, her tiny baby on top of her, looking straight ahead with impatience in her eyes. She’d brought it upon herself, she thought, getting caught up in this escape – yet she wasn’t really fleeing or abandoning anything, she was merely responding to an appeal. The clarity of her memories guided her like a star.”

Set in 1940, it depicts the desperate flight of Belgians trying to get to France at the time of the occupation. A woman gives birth to a daughter just as the evacuation begins. She has no option, but to take her tiny daughter on the perilous journey, travelling in jeeps with soldiers, staying with kind-hearted strangers along the way.  It is an extraordinary reminder of the times, just what hardships people had to face in the midst of the fear and disruption of occupation. There was clearly much uncertainty and yet despite that, there is hope.

This is an excellent collection – I do hope there is more Madeleine Bourdouxhe novels and stories to be discovered and translated into English. If you’re yet to discover her short novels; La Femme des Gilles and Marie are both wonderful.

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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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