Posts Tagged ‘Short stories’

Period Piece

April 13, 2018

The good news is that Ezra is well again. He is toddling about extremely happily. All test results have come back normal. The horrid blue PICC line, through which the daily drip of antibiotics was given, has been removed. We have one final follow up appointment at Great Ormond Street in a couple of weeks and then, let’s hope, no more hospitals for a while. He’s back at nursery, and I’m back to work (sort of). Thank you so much to the many of you who have been in touch with good wishes. It made a real difference, helping me not feel so alone in the mess of it all.

Of course, life never works out quite as smoothly as planned. Vita, perhaps unsurprisingly after everything that has happened, has become extremely clingy and is utterly distraught when it comes to saying goodbye – to me, the husband, or even to a friend. This morning, the entire street stared while she stood at the front door screaming blue murder after the husband cycling off to work. Dropping her off at nursery involves her fingers being peeled off my coat, while she kicks and screams. Apparently she is very jolly there all day, it is just the parting that is so traumatic. Traumatic for us both! Nights are still broken with one or the other of them (in fact, usually both) waking up at some point – Vita with a nightmare; Ezra with who knows what, while I administer calpol and panic that it is not just a tooth or a tummy ache but some other rare infectious disease. I have actually found myself – an agnostic – praying at bedtime for them both to sleep through.

So it is no real surprise that the dreaded shingles has returned. I got it three times last year, when particularly run down with lack of sleep and the rest of it, and now here it is again, that horrid burning sensation all the time, the feeling grotty and having to remember to take a million anti-viral pills every day, which don’t seem to have any effect at all. How one can hate one’s body for being so weak, when you need it to be strong!

At least reading and writing can be done from bed or sofa, where I have spent as much time as possible (though I fear not enough – life, with its laundry and tidying and feeding and ferrying about etc. continues).

Period Piece

While trying to rest, I have been hugely enjoying Period Piece by Gwen Raverat. The eccentric recollections of a childhood in Cambridge over a hundred years ago has been the perfect comfort reading, and I look forward to discussing it with everyone at Emily’s Walking Book Club on Sunday. Raverat writes about her father’s perpetual ill health with fondness, but I find I dread the children growing up thinking of me being so delicate and bedridden.

There are also lots of Raverat’s neat, witty illustrations:


This one shows how the ladies had to avert their eyes when passing the bathing places on the Cam, where all the boys ran around and swam naked:

These dangerous straits were taken in silence, and at full speed.

Raverat is very good at capturing the determination of childhood and how unbelievably unfair adult rules can seem. She rails against things like stiff impractical clothes, and being made to go to church. To avoid this latter imposition, she used to disappear to the top floor of the granary after Sunday breakfast, pulling up the ladders behind her afterwards:

You were cut off from the world by five ladderless storeys and you could quite reasonably pretend not to hear people calling from the garden below. We took lumps of sugar and hunks of bread with us, and sat on the floor in the top loft, under the roof, till all danger of church was over. The roof was beginning to fall in, and the ivy grew through the latticed window-holes, and pigeons lived up there and cooed deliciously. It was a mysterious, happy place, far from the world and full of new ideas, and it did me a great deal more good than ever church did. I still often dream of it, and then I am always just on the point of making strange and wonderful discoveries.

It is such a brilliant description of those secret places of childhood, where hours are spent daydreaming, far from the world. (Thank god there was no wifi then.) Sometimes I wonder if I ought just to let Vita disappear up into our attic and hide there daydreaming, instead of forcing her to go to nursery. I did try to work with her sitting ‘quietly’ beside me one morning, and we managed about half an hour before the insistent interruptions began.  (On the madness and difficulties of trying to combine work and motherhood, I highly recommend Helen de Witt’s strange and arresting novel The Last Samurai – my tiny review of it is in the Guardian Review here.)

Her Body and Other PartiesI have had a few reviews published recently, including one of some new short story collections in the Spectator. Gosh Jon McGregor is amazing – The Reservoir Tapes is a welcome, and astonishingly skilful return to the territory of Reservoir 13. And Carmen Maria Machado is such a bold new voice – definitely one to watch. You can read ‘The Husband Stitch’ – one of the best in the collection – here. and  you can read my full review of four excellent collections here.

More soon. I hope that next time I write, I might have had a good night’s sleep!

Madame Zero

September 8, 2017

Madame Zero 1

This weekend, we will be decamping to Spain for a week, to rent a villa with some dear friends. ‘How wonderful that you will have a rest,’ say my friends who don’t have children. On said holiday, there will be six adults, and seven children, the oldest of whom is only three. Well, if not a rest, then at least a change and a lot of sherry.

I will report back, but couldn’t bear to go away leaving you with the luke-warm review of Nicole Krauss. So here is my review of Madame Zero by Sarah Hall, which was in last week’s Country Life. This new collection of short stories is electric and surprising. Just what the doctor ordered to chase away any September blues.

Madame Zero


Black Vodka

January 14, 2013

I’m never sure of the best way to read a collection of short stories. Is each story to be read on its own, appreciated as something in its own right, independent of the others? Or should the collection be read together, each story akin to a movement in a piece of music, possessing its own mood and character yet inextricably linked to the other movements, with room for a cough but no applause in between?

I suppose this is what gives short stories their freedom. You can dip in and read just one – on the tube to work, or waiting for the pasta to cook – or you can sit down and read them together, back-to-back, encountering them as chapters of the same book.

The Persephone Book of Short StoriesOver the past few months I have been greatly enjoying The Persephone Book of Short Stories – a vast, delightfully meaty book, stuffed with brilliant short stories by women writers stretching from Susan Glaspell in 1909 to Georgina Hammick in 1986. Arranged chronologically, there is a tremendous feeling of the twentieth century unfurling as you turn the pages, the preoccupations of its women minutely adjusting as time goes by. No wonder I’ve been reading this slowly, dipping in to one or two in the bath, using them as little bubbles of escape from whatever else I’ve been doing, wanting more than anything to store them up and anxious of the feeling that they will eventually come to an end.

Black Vodka by Deborah LevyWith one book of short stories already on the slow luxurious go, when Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka arrived in the post – always thrilling to get a package and doubly thrilling when it’s from And Other Stories (who I’ve written about at length for the Spectator here) – I knew I’d read it speedily, and indeed inhaled it in the space of a couple of days. Even though, I hasten to add, these stories weren’t written all at once with this specific collection in mind, but spread back to 2001 and have already been published elsewhere, separate from each other.

These short stories don’t feel like stories. There’s no beginning, middle and end in the way that, say, most of the Persephone short stories are structured. These are more like episodes, moments, flashes into lives with sudden, alarming brightness. If these are love stories, then Deborah Levy’s pen is fashioned from Shakespeare’s ‘bright swords’ of Othello – her writing is sharp and cuts to the quick with its unique devastating light.

Levy’s characters tend to be dislocated, alone, inescapably separate from others. From the man with the hump on his back in Black Vodka, to the orphan of A Better Way to Live, and Alice who arrives in Prague stripped of all her luggage in Shining a Light, to Magret, ‘dead inside’, who herself is described as ‘Vienna’ in the story of that title.

The stories seem to me to be about these characters’ struggle – and, more often than not, failure – to connect with others:

I am looking into your eyes and I can’t get in. You have changed the locks and I have an old key that doesn’t fit …

Placing a Call

Her husband who is going to betray her is standing inside the city of Roma. She is talking to him over the wall because she is not invited inside.


Barriers, locks and other images of separation proliferate in these short stories, frustrating a connection between characters. Often the innate difference of the protagonist – hunchback, orphan, foreign – is what frustrates the connection.

English Alice, in Shining a Light, is befriended by two Serbian women and a Serbian man in Prague. She realises that although they might have some things in common – the same mobile phone, for instance – they have impossibly different pasts:

They have been hurt in ways she has not been hurt. They have left all the seasons in their country behind them.

When a connection does occur, it feels strange, ambivalent, flawed. The hump-backed narrator of Black Vodka is full of loneliness, bullied through childhood, stared at through adulthood. Now he is aroused by the way Lisa, an archaeologist, is fascinated by his deformity. He is electrified as she dissects him:

She stands behind me and presses her hand into my hump as if she is listening to it breathe. And then she takes her forefinger and traces around it, getting an exact sense of its shape. It’s the sort of thing cops do to a corpse with a piece of chalk.

This takes place on Exhibition Road, a road of museums – a fitting place for the narrator to find his own archaeologist who wants to ‘record and classify’ him like an exhibit for a museum. It is a deeply strange connection – as though he is no more than a ‘corpse’ to her – and yet it leaves the narrator exhilarated and terrified by the ‘promise of love’.

This frustration of a true connection between characters is turned inside out in my favourite story of the collection, Stardust Nation. Tom Banbury-Mines is a drunk Ad Exec. His Head of Finance, Nick, calls him from Spain in the middle of the night and says ‘We are stardust, Tom.’ This is the beginning of Nick taking on Tom’s traumatic past, believing that everything that has happened to Tom has in fact happened to himself:

There is a slight shamanistic edge to what we do here at the agency, which is to say that it is our job to crash into the unconscious of the consumer and broadcast a number of messages that all end with ‘buy this product’. Nick had somehow extended his brief as Head of Finance – and crashed inside me.

I love this idea that someone can somehow be landed with the past of another – that someone else can be forced to try to process everything that the other person won’t deal with and instead suppresses by turning to more and more cognac. This connection between Tom and Nick, this passing of the same past from one to the other, is the impossible articulation of what is missing between the characters in the other stories.

Stardust Nation is the positive to the negatives of the other stories. These two characters have absolute connection, a shamanistic sharing, a channel between their minds, between their pasts, even the eczema in their bodies. And yet here it is Nick’s sister Elena who inserts a barrier, who refuses to let Tom pour his past into Nick’s head, to let Nick suffer for him.

Black Vodka is a sad collection of stories. It is a collection of stories about the failings of love, the limits of connection rather than happy successes. Even the final story, A Better Way to Live, which is about two orphans who marry each other, feels more melancholy than celebratory as the text is pervaded by the loss of the narrator’s mother.

It is a sad collection of stories, but a good one. Now I’ve read it in what felt like one long breath, I look forward to keeping it on my shelf and periodically going back to feast on Deborah Levy’s nuggets of painful brilliance, one by one.