Tag Archives: short stories

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito

This collection of twelve stories originally appeared in 1995, but we have Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin Books to thank for their reappearance, together with two later stories, in the Black Britain Writing Back series.This innovative publishing project has brought several neglected Black British writers to readers’ attention. I recently reviewed Minty Alley by CLR James (link here) and I look forward to reading more from the series.

Dat’s Love

The variety in this small collection is astonishing. It is in the subject matter, the style, the length, the narrative structure, the voice, and the settings of the stories. I can’t help wondering what else she had in her files that she did not put forward for publication.

The stories are exuberant, a little wild, often inventive. Many of them are narrated by or from the point of view of young people, girls, and some by historical characters. Here for example, in a very dull setting, is a young girl from the story called Michael Miles has Teeth like a Broken-down Picket Fence:

It was November. The girl looked up at the cloudy sky and sighed like a housewife disappointed in the whiteness of her wash. Mine looks grey, she thought, using the voice of the woman on the advert as she walked along. That was what was meant by November, that time of year when all the colours had drained away by the third week and the world was left in black and white – no monochrome, she thought, preferring that word because it had more grey in it. Not much of black or white there wasn’t, when you had a look. She thought obscurely of cameras and washing machines and vacuum cleaners and fashionable clothing: they were all the same grey tones in the magazine pictures that showed them. Only the covers on the front were in colour. She expanded the word ‘monochrome’ until it fitted everything in it: ‘monochromatic’ was the word. It fitted everything. The girl turned her head and waited to cross to the bus stop on the other side of the road.
She saw the dog as she hurried across. (19)

It was a particular day, dreary as all days were: November 22nd 1963, hardly a monochrome day in world politics. I felt that Leonora Brito captured the greyness of the time, how young people wanted more from the world and their lives. It did not arrive for some time.

In a first-person narrative, a young woman reports about hospital staff ‘when it was over they gave me a doll.’ This is in a short story called Mother Country. The narrator rejects the idea that she is holding ‘a real doll’.

Who are you trying to fool? I asked the one standing in for the midwife, crossly. ‘A real doll!’ This, I shook my head and pointed, is not a real doll. Real dolls have short, chubby legs. Legs made out of laminated plastic; that stay up in the air when you push them up, and don’t just flop like these do. I gestured contemptuously. And another thing, I picked up one of its hands to demonstrate, the fingers and toes of a real doll are always stuck together, while these can be s-e-p-a-r-a-t-e-d out! (42)

Mother Country describes the transition from childhood to womanhood, from rejection of this new being to acceptance, from the trauma of childbirth and the infantilising words of the nurses to a visceral mother-baby bond. 

Leonora Brito was not afraid of playing around with narrative structure. The story called Dido Elizabeth Belle: a narrative of her life (extant) starts in the middle of the action. The narrator is a formerly enslaved young woman who was the great niece of Lord Mansfield, and she grew up in Kenwood House. But we hear a different side to her history in Leonora Brito’s account. She is running away through the woods and meets a man. His reactions and thoughts are interpolated with hers. It’s like the cinematic split-screen, and it works well.

Many of the stories are rooted in Cardiff, such as Digging for Victory set in 1955 when Mr Churchill visited the docks in his warship. Instead of hero worship the story turns into a celebration of community spirit as the great ship had caused the canal to empty and people were needed to lend a hand and deal with the damage.

Many of the most effective stories use children’s or young people’s voices with their naïve point of view. Music and popular songs of the time are also used in many stories, including the title story. Her titles are also delightful.

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito

Leonora Brito was born in Cardiff in July 1954. Her mother was local and her father was a seaman from Cap Verde. She took some time to find her voice, studying law and history at Cardiff University, and eventually moving into writing for radio and tv, and her short stories. She won the Rhys Davis Short Story Prize in 1991 and it gave her the confidence to become a full-time writer. Dat’s Love was published in 1995 and was well-received and a second collection was commissioned, but Leonora died in June 2007 before it was completed. Sadly, given how good they are, we just have these 14 stories to admire.

Dat’s Love by Leonora Brito, first published in 1995 and republished by Penguin in 2023 in Black Britain Writing Back series. 169pp 

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Beginning again with Katherine Mansfield

Following my week’s immersion in a Virginia Woolf summer school, I decided to give Katherine Mansfield another go. I started with In a German Pension.

Katherine Mansfield

She was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888. In 1903 she came to England, at the age of 19, and became friends with some of the Bloomsbury Group. DH Lawrence was one, Virginia Woolf another. She had been writing for some time and had published in school and other local publications in New Zealand. She travelled in Europe in the next three years, somewhat unsettled she returned to New Zealand but returned to England in 1908. She had a small income from her father but was usually short of money.

She had an unsettled love life as well. She had relationships with both men and women, and at one point went to Germany to recover from a miscarriage. This was the background to the publication in 1911 of the first of her collections of short stories – In A German Pension. She was 23 years old.

At first the collection was successful, running into three editions. But the publisher went bankrupt and the collection disappeared. The author was not very unhappy about the loss. When her next collection Bliss was published and successful in its turn, she resisted the idea of the earlier stories being reprinted.

I cannot have The German Pension reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I mean I don’t ‘hold’ by it. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough. But if you send me the note that refers to it, I will reply and offer a new book by 1 May. But I could not for a moment entertain republishing the Pension. It’s positively juvenile, and besides that, it’s not what I mean; it’s a lie. Oh no, never! 
[Letter from Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry in 1920, quoted in his Introductory Note p8.]

Penguin Modern Classic cover showing Mrs Rayne’s Tea Party by Henry Tonks (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum)

In A German Pension

There are 14 short stories, some only a few pages long, all set in an unnamed town where people stay to take the cure. The narrator does not feature in all the stories, but where she does, she refers to herself in the first person, is usually dodging a question or impertinence of another guest at the pension and is described as English or possibly American. 

She writes about her fellow guests at the pension in a mostly unflattering way. Many of them are shown to be hypocrites, very ignorant and rude. For example, Frau Godowska and her daughter have just been introduced by the professor to ‘my little English friend’, when this conversation follows. 

‘I have never been to England,’ interrupted Fräulein Sonia, ‘but I have many English acquaintances. They are so cold!’ She shivered.
‘Fish-Blooded,’ snapped Frau Godowska. ‘Without soul, without heart, without grace. But you cannot equal their dress materials. I spent a week in Brighton twenty years ago, and the travelling cape I bought there is not yet worn out – the one you wrap the hot-water bottle in, Sonia. My lamented husband, your father, Sonia, knew a great deal about England. But the more he knew about it the oftener he remarked to me, “England is merely an island of beef flesh swimming in a warm gulf of sea of gravy.” Such a brilliant way of putting things. Do you remember, Sonia?’ (From The Modern Soul, p44-45)

Some of the German characters are very patriotic, often at the expense of the English. Then there are the monstrously selfish men, for example Herr Binzer who suffers so much when his wife is having a baby, lamenting that he is too sensitive (A Birthday). Then there is the brutish Herr Brechenmacher, a postman, who spoils his wife’s enjoyment of a wedding party by reminding her of the trouble she gave him on their wedding night. She checks on her children and then goes to bed. The story ends like this.

Then even the memory of the wedding faded quite. She lay down and put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt as Herr Brechenmacher lurched in. (From Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding. P40)

Katherine Mansfield rejected these stories as not good enough, juvenile, a lie. Yet we see some clever character sketches, some subtle humour, and some engaging writing. But it is easy to see why the attitudes of the Germans and the ‘English’ guests at the pension towards each other might have struck the wrong note in the years after the First World War. 

Now after an interval of more than 100 years, rather than less than 10, we can judge the merits of In a German Pension better perhaps than Katherine Mansfield could, even if we still see some of the stories as containing juvenilia.

Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.

Virginia Woolf met Katherine Mansfield a few years after this collection was published, probably in 1917. In her first references to her new friend, Virginia Woolf frequently uses the term inscrutable. She was ‘intelligent and inscrutable’, ‘very inscrutable and fascinating’, and ‘inscrutable’. They admired each other’s writing and formed a close friendship which lasted until Katherine Mansfield’s death in 1923. Virginia Woolf told a friend in 1931 that she dreamt of Katherine often ‘- now that’s an odd reflection – how one’s relation with a person seems to be continued after death in dreams, and with some odd reality too.’

In A German Pension by Katherine Mansfield. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition, published in 1964 with an Introductory Note by John Middleton Murry. 117pp

Picture credit:
Katherine Mansfield by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1916-1917.
National portrait Gallery NPG Ax140568
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Agreement

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Foster and Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Last year I was enthusiastic on this blog about a small novel: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. I was not alone in my enthusiasm. It won the George Orwell Prize for political fiction and was shortlisted for both the Rathbones Folio and the Booker Prizes in 2022. It was a tale of quiet morality, and beautiful writing.

So when I was in Orkney and needed a small book for my flight home, I visited Stromness Bookshop. The bookshop is one of the smallest and best stocked bookshops I have ever been in. Squeezing between the stacks I found a copy of Foster, also by Claire Keegan. It was a perfect choice.

Foster

Foster is short, just 88 pages. It’s a story, set in rural Ireland, about an unnamed girl, the narrator, who gets taken by her father to the Kinsella’s farm one summer. They appear to be relatives of her mother who is expecting her next child. The narrator is not sure why she is there, or how long she will remain. In the short time he is at the farm her Da reveals himself to be a drinker and a gambler.

From such an insecure background, the girl is unsure of what is expected of her and she waits to see what happens. Over the weeks the Kinsellas show warmth, love and affection and she slowly comes out of her shell. We learn that this quiet couple lost their son, who drowned in slurry. The girl is happy at the farm, but the summer must end and she must return home.

It is so moving, so precise in its observations, through the child’s eyes, and a pleasure to read, like Small Things Like These.

Foster by Claire Keegan, published in 2010 by Faber & Faber. 88pp

Walk the Blue Fields

We read Small Things like These in my book group and shortly after I was lent this collection of short stories by Claire Keegan. They are also set in rural Ireland, and concern lonely men, for the most part, men who are inadequate at dealing with women and with their feelings about women. There is a slowness and understatedness about these stories which makes them captivating. The damage people do to their lives through drink, religion, gambling and ignorance is carefully revealed.

I thought that the title story was exceptional, in its subject matter (a priest who agonises as he officiates at the wedding of his former lover) and in how it is treated. It is not surprising that her short stories have also won prizes. 

Walk the Blue Fields Claire Keegan, published in 2007 by Faber & Faber. 183pp

You can find my review of Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan on Bookword blog, at this link.

And good news: So Late in the Day, a new short story by Claire Keegan, will be published by Faber and Faber in September.

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Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell

Old People are not pets.’ I wish I could remember where I came across this truth recently. I like a book that depicts older people, especially older women, as real humans, with the full range of emotions and experiences. Such books are to be treasured but can be hard to find.

This problem is explored in an article in the most recent edition of Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/3) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives. The article looked at myths about ageing authors, and also about the characters that older women want to read about. The article referred to the ten top novels featuring older women on Bookword and listed this blog as a resource for interested readers. There is a great deal to think about in the article. 

This is the 61st post in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women in fiction more visible. You can find the link at the end of the post to the complete list of 100+ suggested books in the series with links to those I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

Cat Brushing

I find it hard to review collections of short stories. The quality and interest will be variable, and what I have enjoyed may not please others. What is pleasing in this collection is that every story is about an older woman. They do not always act wisely, do not always triumph. But they are written as real people, not a different species, and not as curiosities or pets. 

The title story is told in the first person, as the unnamed old woman grooms her beautiful Siamese cat, noting the pleasure the cat receives. 

And seeing her respond like this to the smooth strokes I could see myself in bed with one of my lovers, and my own arching and offering, and wondered, when I had finished with the brushing, whether she felt as I had when it was over, not just brushed but glad, even grateful to have been brushed. In other words, was the moment only with her, or was there a reflective pleasure as well? (45-6)

It is gradually revealed that the narrator and the cat are living in Bermuda with her son and daughter-in-law. She regrets the passing of her sensual experiences, and the likelihood that her son and daughter-in-law will want to get rid of the cat because they are having a baby. Giving up pleasure is hard.

I relished the first story in the collection – Susan and Miffy. It starts with a challenge:

The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that. Certainly, Susan knew it. (3)

Susan is in a geriatric ward, and after seeing her struggle to replace a light bulb, she lusts after Miffy a ward assistant. The very boring, beige existence of Susan in her younger days is contrasted vividly with the feelings and relationship of the two women. Susan has been an exemplary wife and mother and rarely felt any desire in her life. Now it consumes her.

And so the stories progress, with the women discovering aspects of themselves in the last stages of their lives. Sometimes they find that they have been hanging on to an idea, an ancient love affair, for too long and the object of their affections is no longer interested. One woman is charmed by a fellow passenger on a train in a chance encounter, and their subsequent lives together become exploitative. Another has devoted her life to the care of her father, and to a relationship with him which feels decidedly unhealthy. And the very satisfying story about a woman who has relished being alone all her life but finds happiness in changing her attitude ends the volume.

I liked the collection for its steady presentation of different women, with a variety of attitudes, histories and futures and facing difficult circumstances late in life, drawing on what they had learned over the years. This is a contrast to some depictions of older women as naïve or having learned nothing from their many experiences. Jane Campbell’s women have no magical powers, no wisdom for younger women.

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell, published in 2022 by riverrun. 245pp

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here

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Shirley Hazzard – Collected Stories

Lovers of short stories should be aware of this excellent writer. She did not write a great deal, five novels, some works of non-fiction and some short stories. A collection of 28 of these has been made by Brigitta Olubas, published by Virago in 2020. You will find critics using such expressions as precise, surgical, elegant, decorousness, scalpel-sharp prose, polished, bitingly funny. Her stories are all these things. 

Collected Stories

The stories in the first section of this collection are mostly about relationships, often with a young girl at the mercy of a jaded older man, who is pretty hapless. Her observational skills are superb. She is both moral and accurate. Here is a moment in the conversation between Clem, a married man of 42 who is trying to let Nettie down lightly at the end of their love affair. She is a young woman of very little experience.

“What are you thinking about?” he asked her.
“Men,” she said absently.
Taken aback by the plural, he stopped to assemble his thoughts once more. She was not being very encouraging, lowering her eyes and offering him monosyllables in this way. But there was no reason why she should encourage him, and he reminded himself of that; he was nothing if not fair. (38 A Place in the Country)

Shirley Hazzard is not so interested in the drama in the stories, more about the importance of people making authentic connections. As Zoe Heller remarks in her foreword about this story, Nettie, urged by her lover not to “exaggerate the importance” of her broken heart, ‘understands instinctively that the greater sin is to take such matters of the heart lightly’. (xi)

The middle section includes stories mostly set in the ‘Organisation’, which is the UN in a thin disguise, where Shirley Hazzard worked for many years in the 1950s. The stories reveal a certain smugness in the men in high positions. She is not above lampooning organisational speak, people’s attitudes to themselves, the hierarchies of the Organisation, the pointlessness of much of the work and the ability of the organisation to believe that its work had value where there is none.

‘The Meeting’ is a story about Flinders who has been running an operation in a north African country, replanting trees. He makes a presentation to a subcommittee of the Organisation, DALTO (the Department of Aid to the Less Technically Oriented), about his project, but he does not know how to speak their language, whereas another presentation at the same meeting is smooth and accompanied by a film but appears to have done nothing. 

He left the room and walked down a gray corridor. He wished he had gone to the trouble of taking a proper film, like Edrich, or had at least prepared the right kind of final report. At El Attara he had thought these things peripheral, but here they seemed to matter most of all. He should have been able to address the meeting in its own language – the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations, which he had never set himself to master. At El Attara they had needed help and he had done what he could, but he found himself unable to speak of this work. He knew the problem of erosion to be immense, and the trees, being handed down that way had looked so few and so small. (171 The Meeting)

There is humour in her description of the language of meetings: the language of ends and trends, of agenda and addenda, of concrete measures in fluid situations. But more than that, this seems to be an indictment of the work of a great organisation, loftily above the needs of ordinary citizens of the world, and quite out of touch with the reality of those lives: he knew the problem of erosion to be immense. The problem appears to be erosion of the Organisation’s purposes.

Among the uncollected and unpublished stories in the third section is ‘Leave it to me’ about the hypocrisy of well-informed people. A group assemble in an Italian house, witnessing a fire in the fields. The English host complains that the Italians used to work together to extinguish such fires, but they don’t now. They let it burn. The party let it burn. Later they go outside to see how it’s going and find that the fire has been extinguished. 

I have picked out a couple of quotations, but these short stories are full of such moments, which add up to a collection of thoughtful and intelligent observations of the worlds in which Shirley Hazzard moved, and which have relevance today. They reveal that Shirley Hazzard was as brilliant a writer of short fiction as of longer works.

Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzzard; Christopher Peterson, New York. October 29, 2007 via WikiCommons

Shirley Hazzard was born in 1931 in Sydney, Australia. Her father moved the family when he took up a diplomatic position in Hong Kong in 1947, and they moved back to Australia and on to New Zealand before they settled in New York from 1951. She worked at the UN for about 10 years and was critical of its failings. She spent time in Italy and developed a love of the country. She died in 2016 in New York.

The Transit of Venus was published in 1980, and The Great Fire in 2003. Both books gained awards for excellence. Some of her essays have been collected in a volume called We Need Silence to find out What we Think.

Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard, edited by Brigitta Olubas and published by Virago in 2020.  356pp

Related posts

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (September 2020)

Even more praise for short stories (September 2021)

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Even more praise for short stories

More praise for short stories was the title of a post on this blog in January 2017. It updated an earlier post (November 2013). It has maintained a modest readership ever since, so I decided it was time to revise the second post and recommend more short stories for those who love reading them, as I do.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, and the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, giving the reader the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggested that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions. He said:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts. (in Prospect 2006, A Short History of the Short Story)

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. 

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies of short stories. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! because they listen to what the reading public say they want.)

A selection from Bookword 

In the last year I have reviewed the following collections, with links included:

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Wave Me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

Refugee Tales IV Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus

And in the next few months I plan to read these: 

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Elizabeth Bowen collection

Shirley Hazzard collection

Where the Wild Ladies are by Matsuda Aoko, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton, Tilted Axis press (2020). A present from my daughter.

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Award. And you can find local competitions too, for example here in the South West there is the Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters. These competitions are not usually limited to contestants in the area, although this one has an additional award for local writers. Online you can also find many journals and sites that publish short stories.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume the reader is a novelist, so I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

I say no more about writing them at the moment as I have been stuck on one for months and months and months.

Other recommendations 

Some other recommendations (with some links) are:

Elizabeth Taylor (Virago)

 

Raymond Carver (Vintage)

Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)

Edith Pearlman (Pushkin)

Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)

Persephone Book of Short Stories

Dorothy Whipple (Persephone)

When I previously wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following writers:

More Praise for Short Stories appeared in January 2017 on this blog.

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine

This collection of short stories was a Christmas present from a sister. ‘I’m surprised you don’t know it,’ she said when I thanked her. ‘I know you like short stories.’ She’s right I do. And I like these ones very much. Wendy Erskine has been widely acclaimed for these stories and has published others. They have a particular poignancy and darkness to them. We are warned that all is unlikely to be happy in these stories, for Sweet Home was the name of the plantation in Beloved by Toni Morrison. 

Sweet Home

The ten short stories are all set in and around Belfast. This is the Belfast of the present day, not of the Troubles. These are stories of ordinary people, leading unremarkable lives, although often full or disappointment, loss and failure. The narration is in a down-to-earth, matter of fact tone that suits each story well.

Take, for example, the title story. It begins with the building of a community centre, but moves into the life of its architect and her husband. They seem to live controlled lives, few excitements. They hardly seem to be a couple. They are childless, but it is revealed that they lost a child at six years. A local couple work for them in the garden and in the house, and it appears that the architect’s husband is trying to appropriate their child. It does not end well.

Take, for another example, the story called Arab States: Mind and Narrative. A middle-aged woman, disappointed in her life, begins to obsess about a man she rejected at college. He is now something of a media pundit on the Middle East and has written a book, which gives its own title to the story. She decides to attend an event on the mainland at which he is due to speak. She mismanages the trip. It does not end well.  

Or, for a truly shocking example, Lady and Dog. This story features a teacher who does not want to change her ways. Olga behaves with passive aggression and this is gratingly revealed at the start of the story. She is delaying her meeting with her headteacher by sharpening pencils. Ms Druggan wants to sort a few things out, especially related to Olga’s use of the computer. This is how their meeting ends.

Another thing, if you haven’t switched on your computer in two weeks, do you not feel you’ve missed a lot of communication?
Olga thinks. Not really, she says.
What do you mean not really?
This is a primary school with eight people working in eight rooms. It’s hardly a conglomerate. If anyone needs to speak to me, they know where to find me. And if I need to speak to someone the reverse holds true.
Olga picks up the handbag that has been resting at her feet.
Is that it? she says. (161)

Olga may be capable of sharpening pencils to avoid a meeting, but she is capable of much more instrumental, self-serving and shocking actions in pursuit of other projects outside the school.

These are ordinary people, living unremarkable lives, but buried in each life is failure, or disappointment or loss. Many of her characters are acutely lonely. All are unable to improve their lives.

While her tone is without fireworks, or drama, she is able to be very tender towards her subjects. We are not being asked to despise them. In the story of the widow who looks out at a family of Somalis who have moved in over the road, it is the dreadful son who is unfeeling and self-centred. He does not notice that she also misses his former partner and their son. The story is not about the strangeness of the newly arrived family. It is about Jean’s attention to them, rather than to her son.

Jean’s son Malcolm had decided to make one of his infrequent visits. He took the seat in front of the television and when he turned it on she heard him let out his usual sigh at the poor choice of channels. Jean was positioned at the end of the sofa because it gave the best view out of the window. 
Malcolm was telling her that he had a new boss. The boss had only been in the job a couple of weeks but Malcolm didn’t like him. Some of the others did, up to them, be he didn’t
Only a couple of weeks, Jean said. Still early days then really, isn’t it?
Early days and already not going well, Malcom said.  (35)

These are the opening four paragraphs of Inakeen. You already know everything about Malcolm and his lack of attention to his mother, her life, what she says and his responsibilities. 

In both these quotations you can see that an outstanding feature of her prose is the dialogue.

This is Wendy Erskine’s first collection of short stories. I will look out for the next one. Thank you Sal for the introduction.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published in 2018 by Picador, and now available in paperback. 218pp

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Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

It sometimes seems that everyone else has known about a great writer long before I discover her. This was true of Elizabeth Strout. When Olive Kitteridge was recommended to me for the older women in fiction series on Bookword it seemed that everyone else had already read the book. Everybody who hadn’t read it had seen the tv series, and vice versa and some had absorbed both. I was just catching up.

I did read Olive Kitteridge and included it in the older women in fiction series in June 2016, and then I read My Name is Lucy Barton in March 2017, also reviewed on the blog. Now I am catching up again.

Anything is Possible

As with Olive Kitteridge, Anything is Possible is a series of connected short stories. Such a structure makes possible details from a variety of perspectives, and unexpected connections between incidents and characters. In this novel, the connection is the town of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy Barton grew up here, in utter poverty.

Anything is Possible references her previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton, but it also stands alone. Lucy Barton is a character in one story, Sister, and is mentioned by several characters in others. Her brother Pete is featured in two stories.

What emerges from these stories is pain, hidden and overt: pain from extreme poverty in childhood, from experiences in Vietnam, from hiding homosexuality, from maintaining a veneer or trying to escape.

Anything is Possible requires the reader to look into what is not said, to the silences, the gaps. As the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy observed, ‘withholding is important to Strout.’ Her characters find it almost impossible to express their emotions.

Here’s a passage from the story Sister, about Lucy Barton’s return to Amgash, to see her brother Pete. Their sister Vicky joins them. Each of the three has prepared their appearance, and each of the three feel that they got it wrong. I notice that the concrete details – the couch, the attempt to cross her legs, the lipstick, the lack of lipstick – show the reader the awkwardness of this reunion, within each character but also between the three of them. Just before this point Pete has noticed that Vicky has become fat (‘He had known this without knowing it’ 160). We are looking through his eyes.

Vicky dropped her pocketbook onto the floor and then sat down on the couch as far away from Lucy as she could. But Vicky was big so she couldn’t get that far away, the couch was not very large. Vicky sat, her almost-all-white hair cut short, with a fringe around it, as though it had been cut with a bowl on her head; she tried to hoist a knee up over the other, but she was too big, and so she sat on the end of the couch, and to Pete she looked like someone in a wheelchair he had seen in Carlisle when he went to get his hair cut, an older woman, huge, who was sitting in a motorized wheelchair that she drove around.

But then he saw: Vicky had on lipstick.

Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey–red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had toothache. (161-2)

Each of the stories reveals the conflicts between people and within people, and does it through their dialogue, the details of their actions or their observations and through strong imagery, like the soul with toothache. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Day in the Guardian, referred to Elizabeth Strout’s skill at understatement and how well she shows the reader the conflict between ‘private desire and public obligation’.

This is the lot of small towns. There is deep loneliness for the characters in the small town, and for some an irresistible urge to leave, as Lucy Barton did, as Elizabeth Strout herself did. She grew up in a small town, Brunswick, Maine, and is now able to return with insight. Lucy Barton told the story of her ache to leave Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. Anything is Possible tells the stories of the inhabitants who know there is something beyond the town, something other that Lucy found, but are not able to escape.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, published by Penguin in 2017. 254 pp

 

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We called him Tran. Apart from being tall he had Vietnamese characteristics: thin, dark haired, dark eyed, quiet. He held himself aloof from the other young people in his Year 9 class. He caused no trouble until one day I was summoned as his Head of Year to an incident in which he had turned on another boy. ‘All I did, Miss, was this.’ The other boy mimicked holding an automatic weapon, aiming at me. ‘He just flipped.’

Tran was one of the boat people. We knew very little of his story. He spoke so little. But he told me that his response has been a reflex action to the attack by his class mate when he turned the imaginary weapon on him. PTSD was hardly recognised in the early 1980s. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed? Looking back I do not feel I gave Tran enough support. So Tran, this is for you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen may have had some idea of what Tran had been through. The stories in the collection all concern refugees of Vietnamese origins.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is collection of eight short stories, which have in common the effects on families and individuals of the Vietnamese refugee exodus of the 1980s. Published in 2017, they describe the enduring effects of the experiences of migration, and the specific experiences of the characters. Children might be thought to be more capable of adapting to change and new countries and sometimes are ignorant of their parents’ past. But children thread their way through this collection and some have had experiences that will damage them forever. For some refugees the healing will be slow and we come to see their truth – that the new life in America may not be so great.

The stories are written with great care, sympathy and tenderness, yet they are never sentimental or melodramatic. It’s a little like watching wildlife: look, Nguyen seems to say, look quietly and you will see beauty and endeavour and brutality and you will learn.

The sparseness of the title is indicative of the tone of the stories. They are also intense in their depiction of what the experiences of migration can mean for identity, relationship within families, between generations, within the American-Vietnamese community, and with the people who remained in Vietnam.

The narrator of The Black-eyed Woman is a ghost writer, haunted by the brother who exchanged his life for hers when their boat was threatened by pirates:

These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. (14-15)

Her dead brother has swum across the Pacific to re-join their family, to keep company with the survivors. His sister was destined to retell stories, her own, her mothers, those of famous people.

Others stories also explore the effects upon a family of their migration, not least in the final story, Fatherland, in which the father of a new family are called by the names of the children who were left behind. The American Phuong takes a new name, Vivien, and when she comes to visit her older sister it is clear that despite the presents, the ease of the Americanised identity, Vivien is as adrift as her sister.

Identity is robbed or altered. In a startling story, I’d Love you to Want Me, an old Vietnamese professor with Alzheimer’s begins to call his wife by the name of a another woman. She is distraught at first, but comes to see that she can provide comfort by adopting the identity of this woman.

We read of the former B-52 pilot, whose views are challenged by the new Vietnam and his own half-Vietnamese daughter.

The flat fields behind the homes were mostly devoid of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carver did not recognize, their color the dull muted green of algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Spngkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north of the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looed more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height,, the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floor, a man pulling up the leg on his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks. (136-7)

I like the way that the romantic but destructive view of the landscape is compared to the reality of the poverty. We in the west had Carver’s view from his cockpit in our evening news on tv. This is from the story called The Americans.

A Life in Books considers The Refugees in February, alongside another collection of short stories I have also reviewed, Breach.

There is an excellent review of The Refugees by Joyce Carol Oates in New Yorker in February 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam, living in California his previous novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel also featured transition from Vietnam to the US, but in very different circumstances. 25 Great books by Refugees in America in the New York Times in January includes The Sympathizer.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 75% of my target thanks to readers’ and supporters donations. Please help me reach my full target, which is £1800, by making a donation.

March walk

My good friend Marianne arranged March’s walk near her home north of St Albans. Three of us met on a beautiful day at the end of March, and walked Three Burys Walk in the Ver River Valley, from Harpenden, along the Ver River to Roman St Albans and home. This walk raised about £100. It was about 14.5 km (9 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in April

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What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

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