This is one of Rose Tremain's earlier novels, from the mid-eighties, and in spite of its confusing cast of characters is, as almost always, an accomplished and enjoyable read.
The main character, I suppose, is Larry Kendal, and his struggle to give his new life in France some purpose. He is toying with ideas to re-start his swimming pool business with a grand pool constructed on the small plot of land on which he and Muriel now live - in what had once beentheir holiday home.
A short way into the novel, artist Muriel has to return to Oxford to be with her dying mother. From this point we follow the various developments in the lives of Larry and Muriel separately, as they each follow their own paths.
In Pomerac the novel follows the events in the life of Larry, his close neighbours, Gervaise, her husband and her German lover, and the other members of this small community as he gets to feel more and more at home, and as his magnificent swimming pool design gradually becomes a reality.
Over in the UK, Miriam's mother, Leni, is very frail, but still wields great authority over a small collection of admirers by the strength of her personality and by the memories of a lively past. Miriam is quickly absorbed back into this group, and their relationships.
Eventually the death of Leni, opposition to Larry's pool and the various sub-plots come to a head all at about the same time and the outcome for most of the characters is somewhat less than joyful.
For me, the more peripheral characters were maybe given too much prominence in the plot - or possibly there were just too many of them. I found it difficult to care about all of them.
But, still a well above average read.
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.
Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic.
The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else.
On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read.