The Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories

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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