It’s taken me a little over two months to read the eleven stories in this collection because each one demands a period of reflection before moving on to the next. Each has its own flavour that I found I wanted to savour by itself for a while.
This is one of those rare collections where all the stories a strong, so I’ve reviewed them all in the order that they appear on the table of contents, rather than trying to pick favourites.
The Art Of Footbinding
This is a quietly disturbing story that leaves the reader to arrive at an understanding of the meaning of the story or. perhaps, just to see clearly the people in the story.
We are presented with a woman trying to hold on to a husband she is fearful of losing and struggling to assert authority over an increasingly contemptuous and unhappy teenage daughter. Descriptions of the art of footbinding, that read as if they are from a very old Chinese handbook for footbinders, are placed between the unfolding events. That the daughter then starts to bind her own feet, allegedly as part of a homework assignment, links the two streams of text.
I like the words that are left unsaid and the relationships and meanings that are left implicit in this story. The effect is to make the story more truthful and more compelling.
I was left to consider what I thought about the things women are willing to do or are made to do or push their daughters into doing, in order not to be abandoned.
I wasn’t told what to think. I was invited to consider. I liked that. It’s something a short story is uniquely positioned to do.
Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate
I’ve been told that, if you break a hologram into pieces, each shard will contain the entire image. “Those That I Fight I Do Not Hate” seems to me to be a hologram shard. It’s not really a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s an immersion into the experience of a man at a public event in a small town where everyone knows what he’s done and who he is and holds him in contempt for it. We don’t need to be told what the thing he did is or was because everyone knows it and accepts it.
In a few short pages, watching the world from inside the head of this untrusted, hard-drinking, adulterous man, I felt I knew not just him, but the people around him and understood the social gravity that keeps them orbiting around one another. The main character is the narrative. The story is about being not doing.
All About Alice
Alice has a past but what she wants is a future, she just isn’t sure how to get there from here.
The story opens with a wonderful image that captures Alice’s mood and her situation, living in her father’s house, dragged down by the weight of her past and unable to reach the future she can see but can’t touch:
“August was heavy with dying blubottles. They gathered in velvety-blue droves on the window panes and beat their gauzy wings against the glass. They squatted black and languid along the sills.”
As we follow Alice through a week free from her father’s presence we find that Alice
“wanted to leave her life like a balloon leaves a fairground. To slip from life’s sweaty hand and float away.”
yet her past life sticks to her not because she holds on to it but because everyone in the village keeps it fixed in place. At one point, Alice meets her friend, Marian and we find that
“Marian, like everybody else in this town, really did know all about Alice.”
Eventually, Alice comes to the realization that
“there was no bolt to slide across her past. The past was an open door and the best that could be done was to hurry by on the corridor.”
and that, at forty-five, it may already be too late for her to do more than beat her wings against the glass.
Along the Heron-studded River
This is a delicate tale, indirectly told but clearly drawn, about living with someone loved but broken. When I first listened to the husband, from whose point of view the tale is told, I attributed to him many motives and actions and secrets that explained his behaviour and his wife’s. I was wrong about all of them. Only when the simple truth of his situation became clear did I finally see the man himself: the hurt he had suffered and the love he continues to offer.
I understood then that he sees life as herron-studded river that we must swim in to be free, even though that makes us vulnerable to the sharp bills of the herrons looming over us.
Night of the Silver Fox
This story reminded me strongly of the quiet desperation of H.E. Bates’ stories. Like the caged silver foxes of the story, all the characters are trapped so that I felt invited to believe:
“It’s what they’re bred for,’ she said, turning away, ‘they don’t know any different.”
The story is soaked in a solution of defeat, duplicity and sexual tension that sucks at the characters, dragging them towards another round of bad choices.
The story is told from the point of view of a young man in his first job after school, still trying to get a grip on his place in the world. My attention (and his of course) was captured by the smart, determined young woman trapped on her father’s dying farm, doing what she thinks needs to be done to survive.
This is the story of Lily, a woman in her forties who has displaced herself so that she is not at the centre of her own life. She is living with a loss of meaning, carried along a path she didn’t choose, by a relationship she no longer inhabits. It captures perfectly the gentle confusion and embarrassment that comes from knowing oneself well without gaining power or purpose from that knowledge.
Our heroine, alone on a holiday in Italy that was meant to be with her long-term but now lost, lover, Sandra, impulsively tracks Etta, a chance-met young woman, to a nearby town, thinking there is a connection between them.. It is instantly clear to her that she has misjudged. How might she explain this misjudgement, even to herself?
“Hope, she might have said, if she’d tried; the eternal triumph of hope over experience. That and the fact that, if she were honest, there was something about this young woman that reminded her of Sandra; she’d noticed it the minute Etta had settled into the seat opposite her on the train; not a recent Sandra, an earlier version.”
For a moment she tries to save something from the encounter because:
“Life, after all, was mostly the art of salvage. But Etta, her expression shifting in sudden recognition, was too young yet, too undamaged, to have learned this.”
Lily, humiliated, retreats and tries:
“to make the best of this place that Sandra had landed her in,”
Lily understands that humiliation is not so easily dismissed. She says:
“It would return, of course, as humiliations always did, it would wait for her in the long grass of memory.
In the final scene, when a small herd of horses that Lily had thought were focused on her, start to run towards a man behind her, who has come to feed them and who was the real object of their attention, Lily’s response encapsulates her character and her relationship to life:
“And as they went by, she stepped back into the trees, to shelter from the clouds of yellow dust flung up by the chaos of their hooves.”
This is a story of mothers and daughters: how they see each other, how they hurt each other and the love they can offer each other.
Aileen, in her forties, unmarried, living in England, recently made pregnant by a married colleague, returns to Cork to give her dying mother her news. Things turn out to be more complicated than that.
This story shows how hard it is to say what needs to be said to those we love. How even new life and near death can’t free our tongues.
My favourite line describes Aileen, sitting with her frail mother, trying and failing to find a way to speak of her pregnant state and recognising both the connection between her and her mother and the deep crevasse it spans.
“They sat in silence for a while. At the end of the day, Aileen thought, this was all she and her mother could offer one another, the comfort of being frightened together.”
A Different Country
This tale has the feeling of a nightmare to it, that sense of slowly sliding towards something that appals you but being unable to stop yourself.
We all know that the past is a foreign country but the past, for those whom we can move beyond feeling foreign and distant, can become something fundamental and immediate. Sarah, travelling from Dublin to the small fishing village her partner grew up in, discovers not just that Ireland has more divisions than between north and south but that she may not really know her partner at all.
There is no melodrama here, simply the shock that comes from discovering that values, so deeply held that they seemed not to need discussion, are not shared.
Here is the moment when Sarah realises this.
“All of the years he had lived in this place before he met her, all of the time they had been strangers to each other, unaware of the other’s existence, settled upon Sarah, heavy and impenetrable. She felt a small, quiet panic rise up. It was the panic of a swimmer who has drifted out, little by little, on a rogue current and who suddenly discovers herself to be far from shore. She had a sense of something slipping away from her; it was something she could not quite identify, but she could feel its ebbing none the less.”
The Smell of Dead Flowers
This story of a young woman taking up lodging with her mother’s oldest friend is both gritty and grimy. It feels like one of those 1960’s “it’s grim up North” English films that were shot in black and white and filled with noisy silences.
All of the characters seem flawed or trapped or both. The tragedy at the heart of the story feels corrupted or at least subverted by the sullied motives and emotions of the people watching it happen.
It is beautifully told, with sparse prose and muted emotions that nevertheless bring you back to a sharp clear image of a moment of playfulness that has many layers of meaning.
In the Act of Falling
This story is exactly what the title suggests. It catches a woman in that weightless moment when her present is slowly crumbling and she can do nothing to control the speed or direction of her fall.
The woman’s dwindling sense of agency is beautifully described: a gradual crippling of the will brought on by a slow but irreversible extinction of hope. We never learn her name. She never uses it and no one calls her by it. It’s as if she is already becoming the ghost of her former self.
The tug of gravity is present in many elements of the story: the house that that gone from dream opportunity to economic burden, the husband who no longer earns and seems to have lost traction on the world,, the strange son with obsessed with death and the End of Times. No one thing pushes the woman yet her fall has started and she has nothing to hang on to.
Dinosaurs On Other Planets
This is a tale filled with the sadness of decaying relationships and frustrated hopes. Kate, a woman in her fifties, finds herself at a point in her life where those she loves are moving away from her, pulled along paths that diverge from hers and which will leave her isolated and alone. Her husband, older than her by more than a than a decade, is withdrawing into himself. Her son lives in Japan. Her daughter lives in London. Her grandson is almost a stranger to her.
The story is set in a weekend that brings daughter and grandson and an unexpected guest into Kate’s house for a weekend. The proximity is made almost painful, despite the moments of connection, because it is clear that it is fleeting.
In only a few pages we get to know Kate, her now, her remembered past, and her imagined and already feared future and yet there remains always the possibility of change, of something not being what she expects it to be. Even so, there is only so much solace to be taken from the notion that there may still be dinosaurs on other planets.