The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is the second of Rose Tremain’s short story collections that I have read and like those in Evangelista’s Fan, they are as good as I always expect of her writing. I still find the short-story form a little disappointing, but these are all interesting, unusual and thought provoking stories.
I bought this collection on the strength of the title as I know nothing, other than the obvious, about Wallis Simpson. I certainly didn’t know about her final days, when her lawyer assumed power-of-attorney over the bed-ridden Duchess, who was suffering from dementia and had lost her power of speech.
Tremain’s story imagines the confusion in Wallis’s head during those days, when her ‘carer’ demands she try to remember details of her life with the Duke of Windsor - who is a pale and shadowy, figure barely existing in her memory, compared to the more vivid recollections of her previous husbands. It did make me feel a little more sympathetic towards her.
Some of the other stories include:
A redundant East German border guard in 1989, tries to reach Russia by bicycling across Poland.
A jilted man gets his revenge after 30 years
A character in an impressionist painting tries to escape from the domestic scene.
A single woman brings up her niece after her sister dies and her brother-in-law takes refuge in the local asylum
And my favourite: An elderly man attempts to improve the lot of some penguins in a Wildlife Sanctuary (and in particular his sponsored penguin) and at same time come to terms with a childhood tragedy.
As with Evangelista's Fan , a possible theme might be 'unfulfilled hope' - so not a jolly book, but each story says something worth thinking about.
Heads of the Colored People is a witty and - at times - savage portrayal of middle class African Americans. Through many of the stories there is a thread of expectations - the expectations of the black community of their own; the expectations of the white folk; and the expectations of the individuals themselves. There is a sense that it is very hard, if not impossible, to be an individual who just happens to be black. There are roles to be played and if you don't conform to the expectations, someone is going to get hurt.
The stories themselves are very varied. We have a crotchety university professor who hoped for a quieter life by working at the black university; warring mothers waving qualifications at one another when botching about one another's daughter; a social media whore; a disabled guy and his stalker. None of the stories is boring, and for the most part they work well. Some of the stories interlink or have common characters - and I might spot more links if I went back to the beginning. This builds a sense of community and shows how some of the characters resent having expectations forced upon them while they force their own expectations on others.
Despite the darkness, there's a healthy dose of positivity. Many of the characters are upwardly mobile - even the victims don't have a sense of victimhood. Poverty is something that happens to other people, although the legacy if poverty is hinted at occasionally - for example, one story centres around the first time a black person tasted potato bread.
The writing is clear and the narrative direction is clear. None of those opaque short stories with ambiguous endings here. It's not pretending to be arty, but is quietly effective in giving the reader both entertainment and an insight into a community that may not be well known or well represented in literature.
The collection is short - always a relief with short stories as collections can feel quite choppy quite quickly - and the individual stories feel just the right length, long enough to make their point but short enough not to go stale.
Really, a very good collection.
This collection of short stories, published in 1994 is just as good as I expect of her work. Even though I don't enjoy the short-story form (they always finish before I am ready to stop reading) these are some of the best I have read, with intriguing plots, and well rounded characters.
I have been trying to spot an overall theme, and it seems to be mostly 'unfulfilled hope', so a little on the sad side. But each one a little gem.
NB: Although this volume was published in 2017, the stories contained in it were first published in the 20th Century in different collections. Hence the categorisation of this topic in BGO.
Stories is the short companion volume to the much longer True Stories, the compendium of Helen Garner's short non-fiction work.
Unsurprisingly, then, Stories are the short fiction. Except that Helen Garner's work is notoriously hard to categorise. These are not really stories, they are essays written from the point of view of someone who just happens not to exist. The quality is apparent in that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is not memoir or editorial. And it is not the life of Helen Garner portrayed by actors, in that the characters are so completely different: flighty women, abused women, strong women, a gay man, a nationalist drunk, ... Always Australian, though. Mostly the stories don't have what you'd think of as a narrative arc. They start with no preamble and the reader is required to piece together what it is they are reading, And the ends tend to just peter out rather than reaching any real resolution.
So this is not an easy read. Nor is it what would traditionally be called entertaining. It's not even that thought provoking. But there is a beauty in it when looked at closely, in just how perfectly some moments and some details are captured. Invariably uncomfortable moments.
Review of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell.
This novel is narrated by Amanda, a woman on her death bed where she is talking to a boy named David. The events Amanda is recalling in this novel occurs when she and her daughter Nina go on holiday to the country with her husband working in the city. While in the country, she meets David and his mother Carla. From this she learns of when Carla's husband's borrowed stallion is poisoned and a story revolving about supernatural and feverish dream. A theme being parental concern for their children
Schweblin leaves it up to the reader to make of what they will of the novel, the tone is one of foreboding and one where there is a hurry on Amanda narrating as she is approaching her end. A really well written intricate novel and not a really long read at 150 pages (I did it on Saturday).
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