Rattlebone – Maxine Clair

Last year I thoroughly enjoyed my first McNally Editions title – Winter Love by Han Suyin – and was keen to explore more from their catalogue. I settled on Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone which reminded me a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks’ wonderful Maud Martha, although the two books are very different in terms of style and presentation. My verdict? I absolutely loved Rattlebone and its characters who will linger in my mind for a long time.

Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone is a gorgeously written, heartbreaking compilation of eleven interlinked stories that capture slices of life of an African American community in 1950s Kansas City. It sensitively depicts the journey of Irene Wilson our protagonist from when she is eight years old to her last days in high school; she and her friends traverse a particularly rough terrain of tumultuous family life, challenges and heartaches of growing up, and the blight of occasional violence. Irene is often the central feature in each story, at other times she is on the periphery – the points of view sometimes shift and there are stories where the focus zooms on other members of her family or the black neighbourhood of Rattlebone where she resides.

For this review, I have deliberately refrained from writing on all eleven stories but will give a flavour of some of them followed by my overall impressions of the collection as a whole.

Irene is our narrator in the first story “October Brown”, a beautifully rendered tale of an eight-year-old trying to make sense of the complicated grown-up world of adults, the tenacity of familial bonds, and the sweet taste for revenge. We learn of Irene’s mother Pearl who is pregnant with a second child, her father James Wilson, and Irene’s sophisticated, fiery schoolteacher October Brown (“she became our grown-woman schoolteacher, the burnt brown of her left cheek was marked by a wavery spot of white: a brand, a Devil’s kiss”). Through Irene’s eyes, we witness the tumultuous relationship between her parents…

They were on opposite ends of the same track, and I knew from time and again that they would both speed up, bear down until they had only inches left between them, then they would both fall back and rumble until silence prevailed. Later my father would bring home orange sherbet and my mother would rub his back and they would both be laughing.

James and Pearl are fond of one another and yet James embarks on an extra-marital affair with October Brown during Pearl’s pregnancy (another married woman in one of the later stories will remark, “Some men act a fool when their wife is carrying a child“). Things are never quite the same after that but while a perceptible shift in the atmosphere at home is evident to Irene along with its cause, she can’t quite grasp the full meaning of it (“a no-name, invisible something had settled on us”). Afraid of her family breaking apart for good and the loss of quality time with her dad, Irene sniffs an opportunity to make her teacher pay for her actions.

The next story “Lemonade” is about music, differing religious views and beliefs, miracles, and the simple, unfettered gaze of children vis-à-vis complex perceptions of adults. The story begins with a subtle hint at the segregation prevalent in 1950s Kansas City; the neighbourhood of Rattlebone has only five to six inhabitants who are white. One day as Irene and her friends are enjoying their game of Lemonade out on the street, they are greeted by a white woman who preaches to them about the birth of Jesus and the holiness of his mother Mary. Calling herself Sister Joan, there’s a sense that she’s maybe trying to convert them to Roman Catholicism, but while the children don’t shun her, they are aware of where to draw the line. However, Sister Joan’s presence frightens a child of special needs called Puddin (Irene’s friend Wanda’s brother), and during one such encounter, she gifts him a necklace of beads; a gift that has forbidden written all over it and screams black magic to Irene. Meanwhile, we learn of Irene’s budding talent for music, and with the encouragement of their music teacher, she begins to learn and practice piano at Wanda’s home. But then the two girls witness a miracle that not only stuns them but also the community. The occurrence of this miracle culminates in a fierce debate on religious views in which Sister Joan finds herself embroiled – she is maligned by the adults, but the children are more forgiving. 

In “Water Seeks Its Own Level”, the focus shifts to Irene’s father James Wilson, who has just lost a well-paying job in a construction project for daring to protest about the differing treatment of the blacks as compared to the whites. James does not have it in him to head home yet and explain himself to Pearl. Instead, with ample time on his hands, he decides to stroll around the city. Meanwhile, floods have caused the Missouri river to swell dangerously, and while Rattlebone has been lucky to escape nature’s fury, some of the other low-lying areas have been completely inundated. While ambling along the town, James is restless, besieged by thoughts of living an unencumbered life, a life of action and adventure, and a non-paying physical job to sandbank the river offers that window of freedom for a brief period.

“Cherry Bomb” is a piercing, poignant tale of loss, the possibility of love, and growing up. A third-person account, it brims with the whiff of scorching summers, those languid carefree breaks between school terms infused with new friendships and budding romances. During one such summer vacation, Irene gets her first taste of young love, pursued by a boy called Nick who has taken a fancy to her. Nick’s attentions, not always welcome, often torment Irene, but when Nick gifts her cherry bomb, a firecracker that has already caused her cousin to lose an eye in a freak accident, Irene stores it in her secret box of keepsakes. It’s also a summer when Irene has taken to diary writing, and she laments at the fact that Wanda possesses a diary identical to hers, a diary that Wanda seems to have effortlessly purchased, while Irene had to save up to buy hers. When a tragedy subsequently occurs and fuels in Irene a searing sense of loss, her secret box of distilled memories causes her to wonder about things that could have been.

Another fine story is “The Roomers”, a first-person account by a new character called Mrs Pemberton whose husband Thomas Pemberton was introduced to the reader in an earlier story. When this story opens we learn that Mr and Mrs Pemberton have been running a boarding house for a long time, and the type of roomers they select has also changed significantly over the years. The Pembertons, especially Mrs Pemberton, are quite conservative and strict about the decorum to be maintained by their roomers. For this reason, the profile of their roomers is largely made up of teachers who are single, responsible, and not likely to engage in unsavoury behaviour. But the arrival of October Brown changes all that, at least in Mrs Pemberton’s eyes. October Brown is the embodiment of sophistication and elegance, and she has aspirations that are quite at odds with Mrs Pemberton’s traditional viewpoints. But when October Brown starts going out with a married man (“she wasn’t no more to him than a piece of poontang on a Saturday night”), its consequences unexpectedly cause a clash of principles between Mr and Mrs Pemberton – compassion versus keeping up appearances. But could this difference of opinion also be attributed to Mrs Pemberton’s jealousy and Thomas Pemberton’s yearning to be something that fate has denied him?

“A Most Serene Girl” is one of those stories that begins in a certain fashion and ends up in a different place, not what the reader expected. The story begins with a hard-hitting paragraph of violence – a man kills his wife with a knife, a gruesome act that clearly traumatizes his daughter Dorla, the witness to this horrific crime.

Dorla Wooten was the most serene girl in all of Lincoln Junior High. I never saw her talk behind anyone’s back. She never got loud in the lunchroom, or ran wildly when we changed classes. In the halls she glided along close to the walk with her head up and eyes straining forward as though something in the distance had caught her attention. And if you said anything to her, she looked down.

Psychologically scarred, Dorla has retreated into a shell, and out of sympathy Irene tries to befriend her but hits a stone wall. Meanwhile, Irene makes a new friend Geraldine, although the latter is reluctant to invite Irene into her home. The reason is soon clear – Geraldine resides with her mother in a basement flat of a building called a “tourist home” where rooms are rented for couples to have sex. Shame is what makes Geraldine hesitant to invite Irene into their home at first, and Irene is sympathetic. Irene’s feelings of sympathy for both Dorla and Geraldine possibly stems from a sense that she comes from a secure place, a relatively happier home. But then Irene makes a shocking discovery at the tourist home that upends this perceived security and causes her to look at Dorla and Geraldine in an altered light.

 “The Great War” is a short piece on Irene’s mother Pearl, a woman who has always “been waiting”, her mounting frustration with her life pretty evident as she ponders on the elusive meaning of love. “Secret Love” is a finely crafted story on the stigma of mental illness, the breakdown of family life, the angst of separation, and how shared family troubles can become a catalyst for deeper friendships.

Rattlebone, then, is a simmering cauldron of myriad characters whose lives and actions enhance the richness and beauty of this collection and brings to the fore the complex dynamics of communities. The milieu of Rattlebone may appear small and inconsequential but the range of feelings, emotions, and experiences of its inhabitants is universal. Death, trauma, and violence co-exist with kindness and compassion. Wives grapple with their husbands’ wayward ways. Unwed mothers bear the burden of patriarchal thinking and struggle to be accepted. Some children suffer alienation and isolation, others a sense of shame often a consequence of their parent’s actions. But a feeling of community spirit is also palpable – tragedies often bring families together as do wondrous miracles. At the centre of it, is our protagonist Irene Wilson whose personal experiences and relationships will mold her character and influence how she sees the world.

I hated that. I hated to hear her say women have needs. I hated that dark sea of mysterious passions women were supposed to have, that apparently made them behave in uncontrollable ways, like in all those magazines. Some women. I was never going to dip into it.

These are beautiful, sharply-observed stories with their tender portrayal of characters who display a quiet strength, an inner reserve that compels them to dream big and carry on despite obstacles and hardships.

There’s such a variety of themes explored – the meaning of love, the yearning for a stable family life, the excitement of new friendships, the sorrows of growing up, the power of dreams and aspirations, the disappointment of thwarted hopes and desires, the clash between modern and traditional values, the pain of adultery, cheating and shame, death and random violence, and so on.  Ever present is the stain of racism and segregation – it does not always form the focal point of the stories but it does seep in, stubbornly lingering in the background and occasionally coming to the fore.

In terms of structure, every story introduces a new character while familiar characters introduced in the earlier stories reappear in the later ones thereby adding much depth to each of them, and while Irene’s story unfolds linearly, each story feels complete by itself. The writing style is clear and uncluttered, but what also stands out is the musicality of the language – a wonderful symphony of poetic prose and colloquial diction, a singular manner of expression that perfectly captures the thoughts, conversations, and views of a community and makes its characters feel intensely real.

Spring was unraveling everywhere. Summer was coming when I would go hunting for wild greens with my father, when we would be up in the warm, damp mornings taking his gunnysack with us along the railroad tracks all the way to the woods. Summer was coming when he would show me which was dandelion and which was dock, which was pokeberry and which was nettle. We would bring back morels and truffles for my mother to dip in egg and crackers and fry them crispy brown. Summer was coming and maybe my father would come back. 

Profound, gentle, wise, and laced with empathy, Rattlebone is a superb collection of vibrant, bittersweet sketches of small-town life that deserves a much wider audience. Highly recommended!


All Our Yesterdays – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

By sheer coincidence I’ve been reading books set during the Second World War that view events from the Italian perspective – Iris Origo’s two diaries, important pieces of work because they are a first-hand account that captures the immediacy of the events unfolding around her; and All Our Yesterdays, a work of fiction by Natalia Ginzburg also set during the same period but written in the years following the war. Both are simply brilliant. Ginzburg, especially, is turning out to be another favourite author and I’ve read and throughly enjoyed her books – Family Lexicon and The Dry Heart – in the past.

Set in a smaller town in Italy before and during the Second World War, Natalia Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays is simply wonderful; a big-hearted, bustling novel of family, friendships, politics, and war pitted against a backdrop of immense turbulence, and narrated in a style that captures Ginzburg’s customary dry wit.

Essentially a family saga, the book is divided into two sections. In Part One, Ginzburg focuses her gaze on an ensemble cast – two families living in a smaller town in Northern Italy. We are introduced to our protagonist Anna whose father, an ageing widower, is moody, temperamental, and a staunch anti-Fascist engrossed in composing his memoir most notably his harsh views on Fascism. Despite these big ambitions, the book is nowhere close to complete, and yet the father labours on. It’s the elder son Ippolito who bears the brunt of his father’s tyranny, forced to assist him with his writing and various other tasks. Yet Ippolito doesn’t outwardly complain; he suffers instead in silence.

Then there’s Ippolito’s sister Concettina, a young woman who has many men vying for her attention, of which one is Danilo – a man who stands by the gate of the house in a manner that disconcerts Signora Maria, their housekeeper. Concettina is a tad vain and frivolous, engaged in myriad fleeting affairs, and always in a sour mood. Rounding off the family are two of its youngest members – Guistino followed by Anna.

Much of the story then is told from Anna’s perspective although this is not a first-person account. Shy and reserved in nature, Anna’s very young age and reticent demeanour mean that she is hardly noticed in the house, but she notices various aspects of her family the significance of which she does not always comprehend.

Residing opposite them is another family – Mammina, the second wife of an old man, along with their two sons, the down-to-earth Emanuele, and the snobbish, uppity Guima. Their step-sister Amalia also lives there and frequently visiting them is a seemingly flighty man called Franz on whom Mammina has her designs. Franz, we later learn, is a Jew and deeply worried about the fate of his Jewish parents who have most likely perished in the Holocaust.

Once the fathers of both households die, the sons start taking an interest in politics, more specifically in anti-Fascist activities. Anna observes Ippolito and Emanuele having spirited, intense discussions furtively and they also bring Concettina’s suitor Danilo into their fold. But subsequently, Danilo is arrested, whipping up a frenzy in the family to burn all evidence and material pointing to their dissident activities in which Anna also takes part.

Ginzburg seamlessly places these family dynamics against a wider political backdrop – Fascism, the approaching rumblings of World War Two with the big question of the mode of Italy’s participation, and later on the horrors of the Holocaust.

While initially focusing their energies on devising the mechanics of a revolution that would overthrow Fascism, Ippolito, Emanuele and Danilo realise that an even bigger threat has entered the picture – Hitler and his frightening vision of Nazi Germany. As Germany steadily begins invading countries beginning with Poland and moving westwards, Emanuele et al are wracked with tension, and the fall of France is the final straw precipitating Ippolito’s descent into a crippling depression.

We are also introduced to the rather colourful character Cenzo Rena, an older friend of the family rumoured to be rich with his own house and estate in Italy’s rural south. Cenzo Rena’s sudden appearances are often chaotic, uprooting the rhythm of the house, but he livens up the household becoming a sort of mentor to Guistino who values his company.

Meanwhile, Anna is beset by troubles of her own that no one in the household is aware of. Her brief fling with Guima results in a pregnancy that she is at pains to terminate. Guima, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a coward with no inclination of assuming any responsibility and Anna is in despair. Unexpectedly for her, she finds herself confessing to Cenzo Rena who suggests that they marry so that she can keep the child. Thus, in a move that greatly bewilders Anna’s family, Cenzo Rena marries Anna and the couple moves to his house in the village of San Costanza which becomes the central focus of Part Two of the book. This section also gets much darker – we see Italy declaring war, the fall of Mussolini, the signing of the armistice followed by German occupation and all the chaos and terror that came with it. These developments in various ways affect the inhabitants of Cenzo Reno’s village too.

In Part Two, many of the characters who had a minor presence in the first part become central to the story, while the central figures in Part One get pushed to the periphery although never entirely forgotten. Thus, the spotlight shifts to Cenzo Rena and he becomes the axis around which much of the plot of Part Two revolves. Cenzo Rena goes through a gamut of emotions – boredom, anger, despair, fright, and remorse. He is tormented by the news of Jews being packed off in trains; he resists the idea of lodging refugees at his home because he hates people staying with him but later relents and willingly provides shelter to a slew of fugitives in his house cellar.

Thus, in All Our Yesterdays, through the lens of two families, we get a broader glimpse of a country at war – Italian civilians engulfed by tension, anxiety, and mounting uncertainty given the events unfolding around them and on the world stage. Amidst a continuous barrage of air raids and bombings, genocide and violence, the new normal way of life carries on in whatever way it can.

The essence of the themes covered includes the impact of war on society, the constant nerve-wracking tussle between the brutal reality of daily violence and trying to lead some semblance of a normal life despite it all, how the worldview shrinks to everyday existence coupled with an all-pervading sense of stasis.  But it is also a novel about family and relationships – individuals grappling with their insecurities on a personal level, struggling to adapt to larger events beyond their control, and the inability of members of the same family to communicate and connect during moments of immense upheavals particularly in their private lives. There’s a sense that Anna and her siblings despite living under the same roof in the first part of the novel essentially lead different lives, unaware of each other’s innermost thoughts or feelings. What’s more, as if the frightening global scale of war was not enough, the book’s characters, both major and minor, also have to contend with unexpected deaths, suicides, quarrels, boredom, anxiety, adultery, betrayals, and abandonment.

But what is truly astonishing about All Our Yesterdays is the sheer range of humanity on display – each of the characters is beautifully etched, they are endearing in different ways despite their flaws and foibles. We see the darkness of Ippolito’s depression, we get a taste of Anna’s loneliness when her marriage geographically separates her from her family, we are beguiled by Cenzo Rena’s eccentricity and we feel Guistino’s torment at the hopelessness of falling in love with a friend’s wife and his frustration at being abandoned by Cenzo Rena, a figure he revered. In those troubled times, we see the fortunes of these characters change dramatically, they drift apart fuelled by marriage and the men inevitably heading off to war, but these longer periods are also punctuated by brief moments of reunions. We also see many of them display considerable moral courage to the best of their abilities, striving to do the right thing even if it means endangering themselves in the process.

At present, when he happened to hear cries and lamentations from the contadini in the lanes, Cenzo Rena would go out and look, and it would be Germans searching the houses for young men to put on lorries and send off to work in Germany, and Cenzo Rena would start talking German and sometimes he had succeeded in getting the Germans away from the houses and telling them some kind of tall story to get them to leave people alone. It wasn’t much, Cenzo Rena said to Giuseppe, it wasn’t much but it was all he was able to do. 

The culmination of war brings great relief and joy to the surviving characters, normal life can finally resume but will it ever be the same? In the post-war world, some form of emptiness also gnaws at these survivors, who otherwise used to rebellions, revolutions, and political turmoil, must navigate a welcome but substantially altered and unknown era of peace.

But in a short time he would be giving up the newspaper and leaving Rome for good, because he did not know how to produce newspapers. He could produce secret newspapers but not newspapers that were not secret, producing secret newspapers was easy, oh, how easy and how splendid it was. But newspapers that had to come out every day with the rising of the sun, without any danger or fear, that was another story. You had to sit and grind away at a desk, without either danger or fear, and out came a lot of ignoble words and knew you perfectly well that they were ignoble and you hated yourself like hell for having written them but you didn’t cross them out because there was a hurry to get out the newspaper for which people were waiting. But it was incredible how fear and danger never produced ignoble words but always true ones, words that were torn from your very heart. 

Another singular feature of the novel is Ginzburg’s wry humour and deadpan wit as reflected in her striking prose style. The tone of the narrative is often light-hearted and funny that blunts the impact of the darkness at the heart of the novel and there is something unique about the portrayal of her characters, in how they come across as both comic and tragic at the same time.

And they laughed a little and were very friendly together; and they were pleased to be together, the three of them, thinking of all those who were dead, and of the long war and the sorrow and noise and confusion, and of the long, difficult life which they saw in front of them now, full of all the things they did not know how to do.

All Our Yesterdays, then, is another superb novel by Ginzburg; a seamless blend of the personal with the global, where the comparatively smaller dilemmas of families and relationships can be as debilitating and crushing to individuals as the bigger, large-scale dramas of politics, war and violence. Highly recommended!

The Stone Angel – Margaret Laurence

I must thank Dorian, Frances and Rebecca, hosts of the lovely bookish podcast One Bright Book for bringing Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel to my attention; they will be discussing this novel in their next episode (very much looking forward to it). I loved it so much that I’ve already bought the next book in the Manawaka series, A Jest of God, and plan to read the others as well.

Set in the fictional region of Manawaka modeled on the province of Manitoba where Margaret Laurence grew up, The Stone Angel is a brilliant, poignant tale of loss, heartbreak, and old age with a fiery, unforgettable female character at its core.

The image of the stone angel greets the reader in the novel’s opening pages described by the protagonist as “my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.” Placed in the Manawaka cemetery and made of marble, we are told that she was not the only angel there, but “she was the first, the largest and certainly the costliest.” As the years pile on, this marble angel loses much of her sheen due to neglect and apathy, and it is this deterioration that pretty much mirrors the journey of the novel’s central character.

And so we come to Hagar Shipley, the protagonist and narrator of this Canadian classic, who when the book opens is an old woman in her nineties staying with her eldest son Marvin and his wife Doris, who are in their sixties. Even at that age, Hagar still has her wits about her, and yet there are unmistakable signs that her health is failing, a fact that she is too proud to acknowledge.

For the most part, Hagar resents having to be looked after by Marvin and Doris; she desperately craves her independence, but even at her most vulnerable moments she’s forced to admit that she needs them. Marvin and Doris struggle to deal with Hagar’s intransigence; they aren’t young anymore either and their first suggestion of selling the house and moving to a smaller place is vehemently opposed by Hagar. But with the burden of caregiving proving to be quite onerous at least for Doris, they outline plans of shifting Hagar to an old age home where she can receive all the care she needs and it is this intention that ultimately unsettles Hagar. She rebels, both outwardly and inwardly, and makes one last attempt to fight for her independence, relying on her resourcefulness that has helped her move forward in a life that has only doled out disappointments, many of them a direct consequence of Hagar’s stubbornness.

Enmeshed with Hagar’s present and attempts to cope with old age are flashbacks and reflections on her past that are often triggered by certain objects or episodes in the current moment. We learn about Hagar’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father Jason Currie whose stubbornness she seems to have inherited. Jason Currie was a self-made man who through sheer hard work and industriousness ran the Currie store in Manawaka, and these are qualities that he strives to imbibe in Hagar and her two brothers.

We then come to Hagar’s tumultuous marriage with Brampton Shipley and her difficult relationship with her sons that ultimately form the backbone of the novel; a central tragedy buried deep that Hagar refuses to talk about in the ensuing years, only to finally open up in the book’s final pages as these repressed emotions resurface.  

Sexually attracted to Brampton, a man around ten years older to her, Hagar marries him much against her father’s wishes, possibly as an act of rebellion, subsequently severing ties with him. But Hagar remains unhappy in their marriage; she is repelled by Brampton’s uncouth behaviour and his coarse manners which have none of the refinement familiar to her. Brampton is a farmer, but with no inclination to put in the discipline and hard work that the vocation requires; he latches on to frivolous money-making schemes that lead nowhere and shows a penchant for long bouts of drinking that frustrate Hagar.

Hagar’s relationship with her two sons is even more complicated, where she openly displays her favouritism – deeply loving one son while pretty much ignoring the other. Marvin, her eldest, is unfairly looked upon with scorn only because she perceives him to be similar to Brampton who she has grown to loathe. It is her younger son, John, who becomes the apple of her eye, to the point that she pins all her hopes on him. However well-intentioned she deems her motives to be, there’s a sense that she’s controlling John and he is trying hard to escape her claustrophobic influence. For all the love and sacrifice she showers upon John, he chooses a path that does not align with her vision for him. John slides into a vagabond life causing Hagar much anguish (“Wait until you have a son, and plan for him, and work like a navvy and it all comes to nothing”), and it is ironic that the qualities of sincerity and drive that she values so much and tries to instill in John pretty much go unnoticed in Marvin. This irony is not lost on John, who during one of their many heated discussions, states with crystal clear clarity (‘You always bet on the wrong horse,’ John said gently. ‘Marv was your boy, but you never saw that, did you?’).

Difficulties of old age, the heavy price of pride, how choices made in your youth can have an irreversible impact on the way your life subsequently shapes up, the complexity of family dynamics with its unshakeable baggage, and the notions of freedom and independence are some of the core themes explored in the novel. It is also a novel about how the same mistakes or behavioral traits often get passed down generations – for instance, Hagar had no qualms about rebelling against her father but struggles to understand John’s resistance towards her.

But The Stone Angel is all about Hagar Shipley; hell, the stone angel is Hagar Shipley, a symbolism made all the more poignant and powerful when the biggest tragedy of her life produces no tears as if she has turned into a figure of stone. Tough, resourceful, fierce, and a force to reckon with, Hagar’s life is marked by losses and failures which she has not been ready to accept. Displaying an unyielding personality for most of her life, she remains a disappointed woman whose decisions and choices cause deep, unbridgeable rifts in relationships with those closest to her. Hagar’s world is defined only by the way she sees it, she is unwilling to consider other viewpoints and it is this intransigence that in many ways forms the root cause of the tragedies she endures. If she has reached the age of ninety, it’s her resilience and determination to take things in her stride that have carried her there, but the reader senses no joy within her in the path she has chosen. It is perhaps telling that a fiercely proud woman who values freedom and independence above all else, is not free but bound by the shackles of her pride. Hagar likes to think that she does not care for what people think of her, but the reality is quite different and much of Hagar’s viewpoints and decisions are coloured by other people’s opinions.

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched. Oh, my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine? Nothing can take away those years.

It is only in the last couple of chapters as Hagar is forced to come to terms with the difficulties and indignities of old age that the hardness that was stored up inside her begins to thaw; in a chapter where she miraculously bonds with a stranger, Hagar releases all her pent up emotions, particularly in connection with her son John. That revelation may have arrived a tad too late, but then perhaps not – Hagar does get an opportunity to finally acknowledge Marvin and there’s a sense that she may have ultimately found some peace.

In a story that is drenched with heartbreak and moments of sadness, it is Hagar’s powerful voice that balances the darkness with moments of pungent, acerbic wit; an aspect evident as much as in her conversations as in her interior monologues. These snatches of humour are particularly amplified in her observations as an old woman, which display a blend of both – wisdom gained through hindsight and a staunch refusal to bend to the will of others. She is particularly hard on poor Doris, who to be fair is not entirely likeable, but some of Hagar’s opinions on her daughter-in-law, as she gives her mind free rein, are priceless…

All would be lovely, all would be calm, except or Doris’s voice squeaking like a breathless mouse. She has to explain the sights. Perhaps she believes me blind.

‘My, doesn’t everything look green?’ she says, as though it were a marvel that the fields were not scarlet and the alders aquamarine. Marvin says nothing. Nor do I. Who could make a sensible reply?

On the face of it, Hagar Shipley is not exactly an easy character to like, but it is a testament to Laurence’s brilliant, sensitive writing that the reader is ultimately moved by the pain she has endured as well as by her willingness to finally let her defenses drop.

Laurence’s descriptive powers are also on full display throughout the novel, she has a way with words that conjures up a vivid sense of place. Here is one such passage when Hagar finds herself in a forest…

Enormous leaves glow like green glass, the sunlight illuminating them. Tree trunks are tawny and gilded. Cedar boughs hold their dark and intricate tracery like gates against the sky. Sun and shadow mingle here, making the forest mottled, changing, dark and light.  

A beautifully observed, poignant tale about a deeply flawed woman, The Stone Angel is a novel I’m glad to have read.

Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no on like me in this world.

The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin – Maeve Brennan

I must read more Maeve Brennan, she’s a fab writer. I’ve only read her novella The Visitor several years ago which I remember liking very much at the time about a young woman who returns to Dublin after six years (from Paris) to visit her grandmother, a cold unforgiving woman.  The inner pages of The Springs of Affection reveal that I bought the book in 2012, and as a contribution to Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2023 (#readingirelandmonth23), it felt like the time was right to finally pick it up after a decade. What a brilliant read it turned out to be!

Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life.

The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road. In the first, “The Morning After the Big Fire”, when a fire breaks out, Maeve revels in being the first one to deliver the news to the neighborhood; in “The Old Man and the Sea”, when Maeve’s mother buys a dozen apples from an old man, little does she realise that this act of kindness will turn into a burden. In “The Barrel of Rumors”, Maeve is fascinated by the Poor Clare nuns, their chapel with its barrel, and all the mystery surrounding it. These are lovely snapshots of family life in Dublin and some of these elements make their way into the two sets of stories to follow.

We begin with the Derdon section, which William Maxwell, in his introduction called “clearly her finest stories” and I cannot agree more.


The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple.

In the first story, “A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances”, we are presented with a scene between Hubert and Rose that forms a sad touchstone of their married life – the desire to plot against each other, secretly that only highlights the increasing lack of communication and hostility between the two.

The couple is in their fifties; married for over thirty years living in a house in Dublin, and it is very clear from the beginning that despite living together under the same roof, Hubert and Rose lead different lives. Hubert is a man of routine, working as a salesman in a garment store; Rose’s entire existence has been defined by the confines of their home. Rose ensures that Hubert has his breakfast when he leaves for work and his tea when he is back home, but otherwise there is hardly a word spoken between the two, and for the most part Hubert is glad of the opportunity to be left alone and have his peace. The couple’s son John has left home for the priesthood and both father and mother are disappointed for different reasons – Hubert because he had high hopes for his son in terms of a meaningful career; Rose because she adored and doted on John and with him gone, her sense of remoteness is complete.

Part of the reason why the couple is so mismatched is their personalities. Hubert has a more refined persona and a sharp tongue; he is prone to mocking people. Rose, by contrast, is tentative, distinctly helpless, with a furtive air about her that increasingly irritates Hubert. Hubert also has a strained relationship with John, the two don’t get along and what frustrates Hubert is how mother and son seem to be constantly ganging up against him, secretly sharing jokes or conversations, a closed world into which he has been refused entry.

When the child was born she was much happier and she seemed easier in her mind, but then she became completely wrapped up in the child. It was unhealthy and wrong, the way she came to depend on John even before he was big enough to walk. Then she made John afraid of him, too. He would hear the two of them chattering away, but when he would open the door and go into the room where they were, they would both fall silent. He would catch them exchanging glances that excluded him. 

Hubert is also ashamed of Rose, of her countryside roots, the affectation and false airs she assumes when they are with people, only reinforcing his view that the place Rose is most comfortable at is her home, although she is desperately unhappy even there. Rose is always on the edge, does not know how to handle criticism, gets hurt easily, and is subsumed by the view that the world is constantly mocking and judging her. Her only respite is her son John on whom she showers all her love, maybe too much; she is an utterly possessive mother who might be stifling John, although we never learn this from John himself.

One minute she would produce a smile of trembling timidity, as though she had been told she would be beaten unless she looked pleasant, and then again, a minute later, there would be a grimace of absurd condescension on her face. And before anyone knew it, she would be standing or sitting in stony silence, without a word to say, causing every- body to look at her and wonder about her. And if she did speak, she would try to cover her country accent with a genteel enunciation, very precise and thin, that Hubert, from his observation of the world, knew to be vulgar. He felt it was better to leave her where she felt at ease, at home. Somehow she wasn’t up to the mark. She wasn’t able to learn how things were done or what to say. She had no self-confidence, and then, too, her feelings were very easily hurt. If you tried to tell her anything she took it as an insult. Hubert thought it was very hard for a man in his position to have to be ashamed of his wife, but there it was, he was ashamed of her. And he was sorry for her, because her failure was not her fault. She had been born the way she was. There was nothing to be done about it.

The Derdon marriage wasn’t always unhappy though. Flashbacks offer a glimpse of the earlier days of their marriage when they move into a two-room apartment helped by their friend Frank Guiney. We see the gaiety and hopes of a promising future, and Hubert’s decision to buy a bigger house seems to reinforce that optimism, but that turns out not to be the case. Rose misses those early heady days of their time in those two small rooms and slinks into despondency which angers Hubert who is also tentative about this big decision to move, and his sharp, unkind remarks greatly hurt Rose.

The second story, A Free Choice”, takes place several years earlier, when Rose is a young woman, not yet married to Hubert. The scene of action is a dance held in the grand Ramsay ballroom, and it’s a setting that is special to Rose because it stirs up fond memories of her father. Rose’s father dies when she is just ten years old, and that loss affects her profoundly even during adulthood; she hasn’t entirely recovered from it.

Whatever she might have been, laughing, solemn, hopeful, melancholy, serene, unquiet, ambitious, or whatever she might have become, she was now only tame. She had turned tame when her father died, as she might have turned traitor to a cause she had once been ready to give her life for. She had known her father was dead but not that he was gone, and even when she began to know he was gone she refused to believe that he was gone out of sight, and she put the strength of a lifetime into her struggle to keep him in sight until she was sure he was safe. She had forgotten all that was familiar to her in her struggle to stand by the one who had made it all familiar.

Rose and her father shared a special bond, she adored him and he thought the world of her much to her mother’s chagrin who thought that Rose unnecessarily had false airs about her and was too gullible. The Ramsay ballroom holds significance for Rose because of the furniture and furnishings; her father was the interior decorator to Mrs Ramsay and her father’s vivid descriptions of the room and fine materials when she was a little girl come alive to her when she finally sees it for the first time in person.  In this story, Rose loves being the centre of attention when she is asked to dance by Jim Nolan, a charming good-looking young man, and she is thrilled to be perceived as interesting to him, only to be ditched later. We also get an inkling of the beginning of a romance between Hubert and Rose, his daily visits to the family shop in Wexford, even when he resides in Dublin, he is struck by Rose’s beauty, although there’s a whiff of that mistrust even then – Rose is not sure about Hubert’s real feelings towards her, and Hubert remains tentative because he discerns Rose’s indifference.

There is something pitiful about Rose in “The Poor Men and Women”, a story that dwells on her propensity towards martyrdom, that craving for some modicum of appreciation that never seems to come her way. In this story, the poor and the destitute often knock at her door for alms and Rose cannot stop herself from offering them something, often regretting the things she has given away as soon as they are out the door. In one such instance, a young mother and her impudent child are allowed to come inside and take a look at the house, and in a sudden act of pity and without thinking she lends them her brooch given to her by her mother that has sentimental value; the duo makes a hasty retreat once they have received the gift before Rose can change her mind…Rose does regret her action but by then it is too late. There’s another episode where she spots an old man in the town centre, a man who had often come knocking at her door. She attempts to strike up a conversation with him, a move that drives him away leaving her bewildered.

We get a whiff of a lack of genuineness in Rose’s attempts at helping the poor; she seems to do it out of a desperate need to be acknowledged as a benefactress, a yearning to be a martyr. There’s a general air of hopelessness and despondency about her, particularly reflected in one episode when she is sick and confined to bed, and Hubert’s act of kindness is misunderstood. 

“An Attack of Hunger”, was to me the finest of the Derdon tales – gut-wrenchingly honest and visceral as Brennan further twists the knife already deeply wedged into their marriage. We find Rose increasingly despondent about John having left for priesthood; she feels abandoned by him and longs for him to return.  In a marriage where Rose and Hubert’s relationship is marked by furtiveness, the need to stay clear of each other, and secretly outmaneuver each other, this is a story where we see the couple honestly express their views but it’s a nasty confrontation rather than a healthy discussion. Rose accuses Hubert of driving John away, and Hubert reveals the real reason why John leaves their home, an unpalatable truth that Rose cannot bring herself to accept.

“Oh, of course you’d have to say that,” said Hubert. “Of course you can’t face facts. But I’ve had to face facts. He was sick of you and I’m sick of you, sick of your long face and your moans and sighs-I wish you’d get out of the room, I wish you’d go, go on, go away. I don’t want any tea. All I want is not to have to look at you anymore this evening. Will you go?”

That craving to be a substantial presence in her son’s life is probably a remnant of the close relationship she had with her father which she hopes to replicate with John. Rose daydreams and conjures up scenarios where she plays a pivotal life in John’s calling as a priest, where she can completely devote herself to his cause and be recognised by his lot for her sacrifice.

“Family Walls” opens with a scene that unsettles Hubert…As soon as he enters the home with his key, he observes Rose discreetly closing the kitchen door. There’s pin-drop silence in the house, and had it not been for Hubert observing Rose close the door on him, he would have thought there was no one home but him. It’s a moment that frustrates Hubert because he is suddenly gripped by mounting indecision – should she go into the kitchen and have it out with Rose, or should he pretend that nothing has happened? This story is mostly from Hubert’s point of view and focuses on his personality – his propensity to make scathing comments, and how he inwardly derides the customers he is required to serve as part of his job. Hubert laments that he “wished he had someone to talk to”, once again accentuating the chronic loneliness and alienation that has formed the fabric of their marriage. He is at a loss when it comes to the best way of having a conversation with Rose that does not make her feel cornered and is generally unsure of what he needs to do when he is around her. 

In “The Drowned Man”, Rose is no more, and Hubert realises that he doesn’t feel the grief at his wife passing away; with such grave misunderstandings over the years in their marriage, what Hubert experiences is indifference. But the world does not know his true emotions and Hubert is sharply aware of the difficulty of expressing them. His closest family member, his sister, mistakenly assumes that he is grieving and he behaves according to what is expected of him in this situation; but his biggest grief is not Rose’s death but the fact that there is no one he can talk to or who can truly understand the unflinching truth about his relationship with Rose.

The day was almost worn out. The light was thin – fading light that left everything visible. That evening’s light was helpless, the day in extremity, without strength enough left to dissemble with sun and shade, with only strength enough left to touch the world as it withdrew forever from the world. The evening light spoke, and what it said was, ‘There is nothing more to be said’. There is nothing more to be said because what remains to be said must not be said. It is too late for Rose. Hubert was silent. He had nothing to say, and in any case there was no one to hear him.

As we read the stories, we increasingly wonder how Hubert and Rose stayed married for so long, a point which perplexes Hubert too in the final story…

What had kept them together all these years, or what kept any two people together, or what kept people going and doing as they had been told they ought to do. When had all this obedience begun and who had marked out the appointed way where men and women walked without protest, and most of the time without complaining?

Loneliness in a marriage, emptiness, feelings of unfulfillment and abandonment, disappointments in relationships, and life having not panned out as per expectations are some of the broader themes explored in this bleak but marvellous collection.  These are some of the most sensitively written, poignant stories and what makes them remarkable is how Brennan evokes shifting loyalties in the reader towards both Rose and Hubert – they are tragic and frustrating in equal measure; yet despite being such flawed individuals, it is hard not to feel for them.


In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. In the first story, “The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary” we are introduced to Martin and Delia Bagot and their two daughters Lily and Margaret both aged below ten. The family is complete with a dog called Bennie (rescued by Delia from a group of boys who were tormenting him), and two cats (Rupert and Minnie). Delia and the girls love the animals, but Martin detests them, and while for the most part, Delia accedes to Martin’s wishes when it comes to the animals she resists. As a result, Delia is constantly anxious to ensure that the animals do not get in Martin’s way.

We also glimpse cracks in Martin and Delia’s marriage. Not wanting to be disturbed when he comes home from work, Martin sleeps in a different room, and what Delia perceived to be a temporary solution appears to have transformed into something more permanent. Martin has shifted some of his belongings and books there, and Delia is deeply confused about this development but can’t bring herself to express it clearly to Martin. Meanwhile, Martin feels like the family is a burden to him, he is a solitary man and for the most part, wishes to be left alone. He can’t stand the children making too much noise and he hates the animals. Even Delia’s thoughtful gesture of brightening his room with a vase of flowers on their twelfth wedding anniversary fills him with dread, unleashing a stream of bitter thoughts. The readers get the impression that Martin would have been happier as a bachelor rather than a family man.

But just like the Derdons, the Bagots were happy in the earlier days of marriage snatches of which are offered to us in the stories “Christmas Eve” and “The Shadow of Kindness”. However, tragedy soon strikes, their first baby, a son, dies when only three days old and marks the point from where rifts begin to develop. This is touchingly explored in the story “The Eldest Child”, the immediate moments of intense grief into which Delia is plunged and her yearning to be left alone. Martin, used to his wife’s quiet, obedient personality, is bewildered by Delia’s rage and outburst at the baby’s death and there’s a sense that the couple is lonely in their tragedy, each is affected but can’t quite navigate this period together and so suffer alone.

Delia hasn’t quite recovered from her son’s death and remains protective of her daughters. She is often sleepy during the daytimes, subconsciously warding away her fits of anxiety. Her life is defined by her children to the point that she often feels adrift in their absence…

Even if she had children, a woman should have a life of her own that would stand up when the children were out of the house for any length of time. She knew that. It was not right to let yourself get so lost in your children that you could find no trace of yourself when they were gone. What would she do when they grew up?

The Bagot section is full of little sketches of domesticity which beautifully blend the physical descriptions of their house – the garden, sitting room, bedrooms – with the interior lives of its inhabitants. The neatness and coziness of the house is vividly evoked, especially during Mrs Bagot’s hours of quiet solitude at home…

Mrs. Bagot turned from the street and from Minnie and from the ferns, and was surprised to see how like a mirror the big naked window in the back room was, but like a mirror that you could see through, a mirror that went both ways and showed both sides. It was like a painting. She saw the wet, reluctant day – light air out there in the garden, and the rain was falling so strong and straight that she was sure she could make out every separate driving line of it. Beyond and through the rain, as in a dream, there were the indistinct colors of the garden…

As for the stories themselves, in “The Sofa”, the arrival of a new couch for the front sitting room is a matter of much excitement to Delia and her daughters, a day when her daily duties are abandoned in eager anticipation. “Stories of Africa” sees an old Bishop, a close friend of Delia’s grandmother, pay a visit to the Bagot home, while in the “The Shadow of Kindness”, Delia is comforted by her shadow which she sees for the first time in the children’s bedroom, a shadow that reminds her of her mother, something like a guiding force.

The last and the longest story of this section called “The Springs of Affection” lending the collection its name, is a fine one – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.

In this story Martin has just died, Delia had passed away eight years earlier, and the protagonist is Min Bagot, Martin’s eighty-seven-year-old twin sister. Min had been staying with Martin in Dublin out of a sense of duty after Delia’s death but now with him gone too, she is glad to move back to her flat in Wexford albeit with most of Delia and Martin’s furniture and possessions which she self-righteously feels she is entitled to for some misplaced sense of grievance all these years.

Through Min’s memories, we are given a window into the Bagot family’s past; their seemingly close and harmonious lives, before Martin meets Delia. Consisting of the mother, Min, Martin, and two more sisters; it’s a close-knit family and Min resents Martin for breaking the family code of sticking together for life and instead abandoning them to marry Delia. The other two sisters, subsequently, push off to lead their lives too, and Min seems not to have forgiven Martin for breaking them apart.

Now everyone’s dead and Min is content with being the last one standing in the family. Min is one of those people who is happy with the way things are without moving forward and through that limited yardstick judges the decisions and the lives of those around her. Her so-called acts of sacrifice appear false and are tinged with streaks of selfishness; she’s often seeking appreciation but faces contempt instead when her hypocrisy is visible to others but herself.

Min, particularly, can’t get the day of Delia and Martin’s wedding out of her mind; she is mesmerized by the gloriously beautiful weather, the lush surroundings, and the grandeur of Delia’s family’s country mansion, the rooms transforming into dazzling spaces of air and light. But what is an occasion of happiness for everyone present is something else entirely for Min – she feels trapped and suffocated.

What Min remembered of that day in the garden by the Slaney was that she felt worn out and dried up, and trapped, crushed in by the people who were determined to see only the bright surface of the occasion. They could call it a wedding or anything they liked, but she knew it was a holocaust and that she was the victim, although nobody would ever admit that.

At the end of the day, Min might not grudge her own modest, limited existence when viewed by itself but she seems jealous of others having moved on, which in sharp contrast throws a harsh light on her stifled life…reaching a point where she feels vindicated for outliving all of them.

To watch the end of all was not much different from watching the beginning of things, and if you weren’t ever going to take part anyway, then to watch the end was far and away better. You could be jealous of people starting out, but you could hardly be jealous of the dead.

What’s terrific about the Derdon and Bagot stories is how the essence of both marriages is viewed from various angles akin to observing each facet of a prism. The stories don’t unfold linearly. Rather, each story is a world unto itself where facts, thoughts, physical surroundings, and personalities that form the foundation of both marriages are often repeated, but explored differently and uniquely like old wine in a new bottle. The couples in Brennan’s stories are unhappy and tragic, lonely even when together. They don’t quite know how to communicate with each other, all the more heightened by the impression that one honest conversation can snap an already fragile relationship. The women, particularly, are consumed by nameless fears and anxieties, they don’t have a purpose of their own outside the home, and their lives are mostly governed by men and a deep sometimes overbearing love towards their children. All of these elements possibly reflect Irish society at the time, a milieu that was deeply religious and frowned upon divorce.

In a nutshell, the stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing. Highly recommended!

After Rain – William Trevor

I haven’t read much William Trevor – only his novel Felicia’s Journey and his short story collection Last Stories – and I don’t know why because those books were brilliant and clearly I should be reading more. But I was keen to participate in Cathy and Kim’s A Year With William Trevor (#williamtrevor2023) and thus chose his collection of stories called After Rain, which turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a really stunning work.

As is the case with short story collections, I don’t intend to write on each of the twelve stories in the book, but will dwell on a few instead that I really loved and which give an overall flavour of the collection.

The first in the collection, The Piano Tuner’s Wives, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first. Owen Dromgould is the piano tuner of the title and in the opening pages we witness his second marriage to Belle, two years after the death of his first wife Violet.

We soon learn that both Violet and Belle were in love with Owen all those years ago, but Owen chose Violet, a fact that caused Belle much heartache then and resentment in the subsequent years. What particularly irked Belle was that by all measures she definitely had many advantages over Violet – Belle was five years younger and also beautiful, while Violet was plainer, even drab.

But the quality of beauty, always an asset for woman, did nothing to elevate Belle’s position because Owen was blind.

Since the time of her rejection Belle had been unable to shake off her jealousy, resentful because she had looks and Violet hadn’t, bitter because it seemed to her that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her too.

Violet may not have been blessed in the looks department but she and Owen shared a strong bond and a good marriage. She was in many ways Owen’s “eyes”, his primary source of vision, patiently describing their immediate surroundings both inside their home and on their travels; a kind of a guiding light in his career and shaping up his life, instrumental in helping him set up his piano tuning business and driving him to various appointments thereafter.

Now, several years later, Belle’s wish has been granted, she finally marries the man she’s always loved, and yet something rankles her – Violet’s influence continues to haunt the house. Violet was Owen’s wife, manager, friend and confidante, and her presence in the home is so vivid even after her death that Belle feels stifled. She begins to introduce minor changes into the house to stamp her personality on her newly married home, but it often seems a futile exercise.

Every time she did anything in the house that had been Violet’s she felt it had been done by Violet before her. When she cut up meat for a stew, standing with the light falling on the board that Violet had used, and on the knife, she felt herself a follower. She diced carrots, hoping that Violet had sliced them. She bought new wooden spots because Violet’s had shriveled away so.

There was always this dichotomy: what to keep up, what to change. Was she giving in to Violet when she tended her flowerbeds? Was she giving in to pettiness when she threw away a frying-pan and three wooden spoons?

Owen senses the discomfort in Belle and makes attempts to quell Belle’s unease by assuring her of his love and encouraging her to make changes she deems fit, until Belle chooses that one crucial weapon in her arsenal to change the way Owen sees the world in her final attempt to snuff out Violet.

A Friendship is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. Margy and Francesca have been good friends since childhood, a friendship that has remained strong even after Francesca’s marriage to Philip – a dull, stuffy man but a brilliant, respected lawyer – and the birth of her sons, Jason and Ben. Francesca and Margy are as different as chalk and cheese but their friendship has endured for a reason…

Margy brought mild adventure into Francesca’s life, and Francesca recognized that Margy would never suffer the loneliness she feared herself, the vacuum she was certain there would be if her children had not been born.

Philip does not care much for Margy but tolerates her without making it obvious, although the ever perceptive Margy senses this. Margy does sometimes wonder how Francesca managed to marry Philip – his position and its consequent demands of a social life and impeccable household management skills often stresses Francesca, who is much more easygoing.

One day, a quarrel erupts between Philip and Francesca over a prank played by their boys; a development that causes Francesca much distress, and Margy to ease her burden sets in motion a plan that has serious consequences she may have not foreseen.

Child’s Play is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved. Rebecca becomes Gerard’s half-sister when Rebecca’s father and Gerard’s mother marry. We soon learn that theirs was an extra-marital affair that resulted in each of their respective marriages falling apart. Gerard’s father and Rebecca’s mother, each now alone, must move on in their own way, with Sunday visits from Gerard and Rebecca respectively to look forward to. For their part, Gerard and Rebecca quickly get along, and the one thread that binds them is the similarity of their circumstances; they come from broken families having witnessed the fights, resentment, bitter recriminations between their parents. The two often indulge in games of play-acting and make-believe, enacting those distressing scenes that only reinforce how deeply their parents’ divorce has affected them.

The titular story After Rain is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on. Set in Italy, Harriet chooses to spend her holidays all by herself in an Italian pensione when the latest of her love affairs ends. The end of this relationship is particularly hard having occurred before the couple’s planned holiday on a Greek island, now cancelled. Wishing to spend some time alone to reflect, Harriet chooses to come to the same Italian hotel of which she has fond memories from childhood; it was where she often stayed with her parents as a child, those flashbacks all the more poignant, because her parents have separated since. However, Harriett’s sense of isolation only heightens during her stay at the hotel; it has moved along with the times, and is markedly different in various aspects from her first impressions of it as a child, and she begins to wonder whether this holiday like all her previous love affairs was just another mistake. Until a stroll in the quaint village, after a particularly heavy spell of rain, and a painting of the Annunciation offers Harriett that singular moment of epiphany.

There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.

Widows is a brilliantly written piece on the relationship between two sisters and the undercurrent of jealousy running underneath, hidden at first only for the crack to finally widen. Catherine and Alicia are sisters in their fifties; Alice is elder and beautiful of the two who moves in with Catherine and her husband Matthew when she becomes a widow. The story opens with Matthew’s death, Catherine is now a widow like her sister Alicia and deeply grieving. Alicia was the one blessed with beauty, the popular one, but unlucky in marriage, her husband’s death in many ways a relief. Catherine is the plainer sister but her marriage with Matthew was a very happy one. Alicia hopes that with Matthew’s death her relationship with Catherine will go back to the way it once was (“Why should she not fairly have hoped that in widowhood they would again be sisters first of all”), but the matter of an unpaid bill brought forward by a confidence trickster sparks a fight between the sisters and only highlights Catherine’s loyalty and her love towards her late husband.

Widows were widows first. Catherine would mourn, and feel in solitude the warmth of love. For Alicia there was the memory of her beauty.

Gilbert’s Mother is a masterclass of creeping dread and suspense – a mother paralysed by a sense of entrapment by her possibly wayward son. The story begins with the murder of a 19-year old girl, Carol Dickson, somewhere between ten and midnight, her body being discovered the next day. With no forthcoming suspects, her murderer remains large and the police seem defeated by the lack of progress in the case. The story then zooms to Rosalie Mannion and her twenty-five year old son Gilbert. We learn that there’s something not quite right about him for which he spent some time a few years ago in a psychiatric centre so that his behavioral traits could be observed. Gilbert is employed in an architect’s office and tasked with menial jobs, but his intensity is unnerving and way he meticulously narrates details often taxes Rosalie but she humours him because she senses that no one else does. Gilbert’s erratic behaviour in the past – unexplained disappearances, items missing from the house – often suspiciously coincide with incidents of thefts, arson and so on in the neighbourhood and Rosalie often wonders whether Gilbert is at the centre of it although there is never any proof. Is he then in any way involved in Carol Dickson’s murder?

The Potato Dealer is another wonderful story that examines some of the same themes seen in Felicia’s Journey – an unwed mother and the shame and guilt that follow in its wake. Having lost her father at a young age, Ellie and her mother move in with Ellie’s uncle Mr Larrissey (her mother’s brother) at their family farmhouse. When Ellie is pregnant out of wedlock, the unborn child being the product of a summer love affair with a priest, the sense of shame felt by the family knows no bounds. Despite being Catholics, Ellie’s mother and uncle favour abortion there being no other choice, but Ellie wishes to keep the baby as the symbol of her love for a man who she knows can never marry her. An arrangement is then reached with a potato dealer called Mulreavy – a sum offered to him in exchange for his marriage to Ellie with other forthcoming benefits such as the prospect of owning the land and house once the uncle dies provided he helps with the day’s work in the fields. Mulreavy settles down in his new abode, the child is born and things seemingly progress along smoothly until a growing sense of guilt in Ellie threatens to disrupt their fragile tranquil state and shared arrangement of compromise.

The tales in After Rain, then, are incredibly nuanced, quiet, artfully crafted with a lingering, haunting power that leaves a deep impression. The set-ups are brilliantly presented and the characters depicted are ordinary people struggling to navigate pivotal moments or periods in their lives; Trevor’s masterful portrayal of the small dramas of everyday life come vividly alive on these pages.

Failed relationships, impact of broken marriages on children, extra-marital affairs, children disappointing parents, waywardness of youth, female friendships, betrayal, death, sibling jealousy, and consequences of sex outside marriage are some of the myriad themes uniquely explored in this rich, sumptuous collection. Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully. His characters experience a gamut of emotions – loss, guilt, shame, mounting unease, despair, jealousy, moments of revelation and even joy.

Tender and exquisite, After Rain, then is a finely chiseled collection of stories that is truly a joy to savour. Highly recommended!