Archive for January, 2014

The Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories

27 January 2014

The Oxford Book of Modern Women's StoriesThe Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories by Patricia Craig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing is accessible, but there is quite a lot to digest in these stories. It depends how much you want to pick from each plate.

As the editor explains, the collection is all-female simply to redress a gender imbalance in earlier short story anthologies. While the authors write ‘as women’ – from life as experienced by a woman – their style and subject matter has little to do with gender. Here are a few of the stories that had most impact on me.

Willa Cather’s Paul’s case describes a nervy boy straining to satisfy his yearning for the lifestyle of the idle rich. His desperation, aesthetic longings, and silliness all draw you into his dilemma.

Afterward by Edith Wharton uses the ghost story to intensify and deepen a tale of business malpractice (I’m paraphrasing the editor here).

In Look at all those roses, by Elizabeth Bowen, we meet a couple suffering from an empty relationship and empty lives, as they drive through the empty prettiness of the Surrey countryside. It seems to hang in suspension; dazed and tired, they encounter a house set in an over-rich rose-garden that accentuates the feeling of unjoyful beauty. The story is like a fairy-tale or a dream in the way that a state of mind is externalised, in a setting where conflicting desires can all be satisfied. Sinister in some aspects, the story speaks of different ways to be captured, to be paralysed, and to escape. The supernatural once again sharpens the storyline, but this time only as an artistic suggestion.

Olivia Manning’s In a winter landscape tells of a journey through eastern Europe by a group of English youth, during wartime dislocations. Squashed together with refugees and complacent bourgeois tourists on trains, they find themselves in the company of a Polish soldier with a difficult personality. The story can be enjoyed simply for its delicate descriptions of snowy settings.

A flashy Indian movie star encounters two prosaic English girls in the suitably titled A star and two girls by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. He shows them a good time, but is baffled by their self-containment, in the face of all his social advantages. A reminder that there is no substitute for groundedness and a strong sense of self.

Is there life beyond the gravy? by Stevie Smith is a real stand-out; it should just be read rather than described.

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Love on a Branch Line

27 January 2014

Love on a Branch LineLove on a Branch Line by John Hadfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A tasteful and thoughtful comedy mixing myth, wish-fulfilment and English charm.

It is the late 1950s. Jasper Pye is an earnest young civil servant living with his mother, stung when various people, including a girlfriend of sorts, call him a bore. Just as his frustration peaks, he is commissioned to visit an odd little unit of Her Majesty’s Government based in a castle on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk – a wartime stopgap measure mysteriously prolonged. Ostensibly there to inspect it, his real, informal brief is to recommend its closure.

The locality is called Arcady, a strong hint that we will soon disconnect from the everyday flow of time. The last part of his journey is on a steam train, owned by Lord Flamborough, who has purchased the local branch of the line. Legless since 1926, the Earl lives on the train, travelling endlessly forward and back. His family’s motto is hic manemus: here we remain. Jasper alights at a station called Arcady Halt.

The unit is staffed by the stern-seeming Scot, Professor Pollux, his assistant Quirk, and their secretary, the young, plain, eager-to-please Miss Mounsey. They have long ceased doing any real official work. Closing the place might seem a done deal.

The problem is that Pye is slowly seduced by Arcady. For a start there are Flamborough’s three lovely daughters: the nympho Belinda, unhappily-married Chloe, and the virginal, too-young, but frenziedly romantic Matilda. They leave him very disoriented and hovering between desire and disgrace.

Belinda makes a playful reference to Freud, whose symbolism is never far away: the mother, Lady Flamborough, keeps whisking Jasper away to attend to her flowers; the Flamborough family has only married within its own extended ranks for generations; and then there is her husband’s severed legs.

The residents of Arcady are lotus eaters. The Lady has her floral borders and beds, the Lord his steam train and jazz music, while others have sunk into the honey of cricket, alcohol, collectables – fixed and narrow desires like Flamborough’s branch line.

Myth plays an important role, but nothing is laboured in this delightful book.

Sometimes bravery is needed not to face hardship, but to take the leap into joy. That, I think, is the true challenge Jasper faces.

In 1994 the book was adapted into a four-part series, which was very friendly to the intentions of the book, though there are subtle differences in the ending.

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