March was a slow reading month for me, it started off well but I barely read much in the last couple of weeks due to various distracting factors. So just four books, but they were great, so I really can’t complain. I continued to participate in Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a contribution to Cathy’s ‘Reading Ireland Month 2023’.
So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the four books…You can read the detailed reviews on the first three by clicking on the title links.
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.
The next two sections focus on the Derdon and Bagot families respectively and are some of the finest stories she has written. 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 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. The highlight of the collection is the last story which also lends the collection its name – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.
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.
Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.
The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age. We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to hot up with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer who possibly becomes interested in Miss Morrow, and the entry of the idealistic and intelligent student Barbara Bird with whom Francis embarks on an affair.
Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships and Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy.
The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively.
Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place; it’s an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective.
DEATH AT LA FENICE by Donna Leon
Death at La Fenice is the first book in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice, and I liked it so much that I plan to read more.
The novel opens during a concert performance at Venice’s famed opera hall La Fenice where Maestro Helmut Wellauer, a world-renowned conductor is found dead in his dressing room from cyanide poisoning between the second and third acts. Wellauer was a well-known and deeply respected figure in the music circles and his death mounts the pressure on the Venetian police to find the murderer. Suspects are plenty, chief among them being Wellauer’s third wife who was beckoned to her husband’s dressing room for a brief chat which ultimately never took place; Wellauer was also seen arguing with a couple of performers from the orchestra he was conducting. One of them is a famous singer rumoured to be in a relationship with a rich American woman settled in Venice.
As Brunetti digs deeper, Wellauer’s unsavoury past begins to unfold (“As a musician, he was as close to perfection as a man could come. It was worth putting up with the man to be able to work with the musician”) – he was possibly a Nazi sympathizer as well as a homophobic with a penchant for blackmail and interfering into the lives of his colleagues and family. And Brunetti realises that finding his killer in the present is to unlock the key to Wellauer’s past.
In the midst of all this, we get a bit more color on Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola who comes from a rich, aristocratic family, and an easy relationship despite the differences in their backgrounds.
“For reasons he had never understood, she read a different newspaper each morning, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, and languages from French to English. Years ago, when he had first met her and understood her even less, he had asked about this. Her response, he came to realize only years later, made perfect sense: ‘I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told.’ Nothing he had read in the ensuing years had come close to suggesting that her approach was wrong.“
For the most part, Guido hates attending social gatherings at his in-laws’ palatial Venetian home, but they have unmatched connections, and during one point in the case when it seems to be heading nowhere, Guido attends one such soiree to get a flavour of the social circles that Wellauer himself possibly frequented.
But Venice with all her allure and mystery is as much a character in the book as the rest; the novel is drenched with a vivid sense of place and Leon effectively captures its two sides – the dirty politics of this canal city, and its magic that draws in so many visitors like moths to a candle flame. Here’s Venice at night when it is empty of day trippers:
“But these were the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, could sense some of her past glory. The darkness of the night hid the moss that crept up the steps of the palazzo lining the Grand Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facades of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty. A boat that, during the day was making a delivery of soap powder or cabbages, at night became a numinous form, floating toward some mysterious destination. The fogs that were common in these winter days could transform people and objects, even turn longhaired teenagers, hanging around a street corner and sharing a cigarette, into mysterious phantoms from the past.“
That’s it for March. In March I had started reading All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, both of which have spilled over to April so they will be featured in my April reading post. Also on the agenda are the two Iris Origo diaries – A Chill in the Air and War in Val d’Orcia as part of the “NYRBWomen23” readalong.
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.
HUBERT AND ROSE DERDON
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.
MARTIN AND DELIA BAGOT
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!
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!
Last week, I released a post on My Best Books of 2022; books that gave me much joy this year and would heartily recommend. As I reflected on my reading, I noticed that I had read quite a few short story collections in 2022, certainly more than in previous years. Two of them – Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Trouble with Happiness – made it to my year end list. But there were five collections that despite not making the cut were still great.
This post is to highlight those five short story collections, sort of my ‘honourable mentions’ if you will (You can click on the links for detailed reviews)…
We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.
The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.
A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.
The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.
Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.
Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.
How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection, while one of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art.
The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.
The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process.
Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.
Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.
The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.
Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.
Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.
“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.
The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.
I first came across Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses when it was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards this year, a stellar list that also includes Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel, The Colony. Trespasses is Kennedy’s first novel and it is an impressive debut indeed, prompting me to immediately purchase her short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac.
Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles.
The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonnh. It is an agreement between brother and sister that while he takes on the responsibility of the day to day running of the pub, Cushla takes it upon her to look after their mother Gina who is quickly transforming into a raging alcoholic.
It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals, who subtly comes to her rescue when she is at the receiving end of some unwelcome, loutish behaviour of one of the regular customers. Nothing much happens on that particular evening and things go on as usual, but Michael leaves an impression on Cushla; she is entranced by his personality and instantly attracted to him.
But there’s a problem. Not so much the age (in his 50s, Michael is more than twice Cushla’s age) but the fact that he is a Protestant when Cushla is Catholic – the difference in faith a critical explosive factor at the height of the Troubles when such unions were deemed unthinkable. As if the stark contrast in religious background were not enough, Cushla and Michael come from different socio-economic spheres; in terms of wealth and class they are poles apart. Michael is sophisticated, cultured, discerning, wealthy and privileged. Cushla has a working class upbringing with none of the panache and style so synonymous with Michael’s social set.
There are other complications. Michael is married with a grown up son. Despite it all, Michael and Cushla are increasingly drawn to each other and under the pretext of teaching the Irish language to him and his circle of friends, Cushla begins to see him frequently. Ultimately, they embark on a whirlwind, torrid affair; an illicit relationship that has to remain a secret at all costs given the highly charged, volatile political environment and escalating tensions all around them.
The Northern Ireland troubles form a potent landscape against which this love story plays out, where people are judged by their identity at birth and religious affiliations; they are defined by what they are and not by what they do, the dangers and limitations of being pigeonholed imminent with no room whatsoever for nuance.
That the violence has become a part of daily life and has been deeply ingrained into the psyche of ordinary people is disturbingly evident in Cushla’s classroom as well. Part of the syllabus requires a discussion of current affairs and many of the chapters begin with the students matter-of-factly narrating the latest incidents of violence, bombings, and death as if disconcertingly they are a natural part of daily life.
Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven- year-old child now.
Enmeshed into these storylines is another sub plot – one of Cushla’s students Davy McGeown comes from a family that has regularly been the object of ridicule and racial slurs in the neighbourhood further complicated by his parents’ mixed marriage – the mother is Protestant while the father is Catholic. While their small town is reputed to be much more tolerant than the big Irish cities, the spectre of hate is never far behind and the McGowan family often bears the brunt of this hatred (culminating in a brutal attack on the father who is left to die) so much so that acts of kindness towards the family increasingly begin to be viewed through a prism of suspicion.
As the novel progresses, these various threads and storylines merge and move towards a conclusion that is truly poignant and heartbreaking.
The novel throbs with a panoply of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally. The title feels apt given that in so many ways the book is an exploration of the consequences of crossing rigidly defined boundaries and venturing into unchartered territories.
Kennedy’s characters are wonderfully drawn and fully realised; they feel so authentic and real and she has expertly depicted the complexities of their personalities further elevated by the difficulty of their situations. Cushla is a respected, well-liked teacher, caring and popular with her students. However, the assurance and self-possession she displays in her professional life is not always mirrored in her personal life where she often feels out of depth. Her strained relationship with her mother Gina, a bitter and resentful woman, is exacerbated by the latter’s incessant drinking and Cushla is at her wits end when it comes to tackling this problem.
The one thing that Cushla and Gina have in common is a sense of community spirit as they go out of their way to assist the McGeowns during their period of crisis, actions that will ominously come back to haunt them.
Michael Agnew’s persona is also excellently conveyed – passionate about his cause, intelligent, empathetic and vulnerable. It would be easy to dismiss him as a cad – he is after all a married man having an extramarital affair, but it is to the author’s credit that despite his flaws it becomes difficult not to feel for him. Michael is clearly in love with Cushla even when she remains doubtful of their relationship which has doom written all over it, and the class differences do not bother him in the way it troubles Cushla.
The steady unfurling of their relationship is beautifully rendered by Kennedy with all the doubts, longing, passion, complications, fears likely to form the substance of such a secret liaison; how Cushla is often consumed by yearning for Michael, periods of silence when she hears nothing from him, the pressing need to keep their affair a secret and yet the excitement fueled by its very danger, not to mention the conflicting emotions rooted deep within her of how unalike they are in many ways. At some level, Cushla aspires for a better life, the kind led by Michael and yet she can’t help feeling like an outsider in the company of his upper class friends.
A slow meal, lulls between courses when he asked to see the wine list and noisily sloshed their recommendations around in his mouth. She thought of the lunch at Easter that degenerated into a row, how little they cared about what they ate, the crumble untouched amidst the main-course plates. Her gut burned with want. That she might get away from her family, her mother, and be with this man.
Sounds she could feel on her skin. His voice. Silver tinkling against porcelain. Corks popping. He said the last time he ate here Stanley Kubrick was at a table in the corner. He had been in Dublin filming Barry Lyndon. The IRA sent him a death threat, ordering him to leave in twenty-four hours; he left in twelve. Maybe there were too many scenes of redcoat encampments, he said, British soldiers tramping around Ireland, Union Jacks billowing behind them. His actor friend, the man who was in A Clockwork Orange, said some of it had been filmed by candlelight and it looked like an Old Master. Michael couldn’t wait to see it. The chiaroscuro. The slowness of it. We’ll come back when the film is released, he said, go to see it in one of the big cinemas. We can eat here again, maybe in the winter when they serve wild things.
Trespasses, then, is a nuanced, gorgeously written tale of a passionate sensual affair, of ordinary people trying to lead a normal life amid extraordinary circumstances. A richly layered and brilliantly observed novel written with care and a lot of heart, this is straightforward, linear storytelling that has nothing showy about it; its biggest strength are the characters that wonderfully come alive on the pages. Suffused with an air of tenderness, quiet anguish, compassion, fragility, and aching sadness, this is a novel that leaves a lingering impact long after the final pages are turned. Highly recommended!