If Tremain can’t write an excellent collection of short stories, then I don’t know who can.
And of course, she does. One of the many qualities I admire in Tremain’s writing is that she is not someone with just one book, endlessly regurgitated, in her. Other than the excellence of her writing, always present, she is capable of inhabiting many times, places, themes, characters and plots. This facility sets her up well for the short story.
One of the major problems (to my mind) with the genre, is that the time taken to read a short story may (or may not) fit well with a reader’s own time for reading. Finish a short story when you still perhaps have another 10 or 15 minutes that you had wanted to spend reading, and you may need to start another story. This can mean you rather lose the sense of completion and reflection on the one just finished, and, possibly even worse, if you read too many shorts at a sitting you quickly discover the author’s ‘tricks’. Because Tremain is not formulaic, I didn’t get repetitive read syndrome from her collection!
The subject matter of many of the stories is love and its loss – and this is explored not only in romantic love, but also in the love between parents and children, both ways, and the loss which may happen through bereavement and also the passage of time and shifting of relationship between children and their parents, over a lifetime. Lest this sound always dark, Tremain has inherent, rather than HERE IS A JOKE ABOUT TO HAPPEN, humour within her writing. Her humour is often wry, and in spite of, or even perhaps, because of, the dark.
There is also a strong literary flavour to several of the stories. The title story concerns a young woman who had a damaging relationship with an older man, and, partly in an attempt to heal, turns the relationship into a highly successful novel. Life seeps into art, with interesting consequences for the woman.
One day she takes the bus to Harrods, suddenly interested to visit the place where se’d worked long ago, cutting wrapping paper with mathematical care, fashioning bows and rosettes out of ribbon, making the most insignificant of gifts look expensive and substantial. It had seemed to her a futile thing to be doing, but now it doesn’t strike her as futile. She can see that a person’s sanity might sometimes reside in the appreciation of small but aesthetically pleasing things
I also particularly liked The Housekeeper, an imagined story of the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s iconic Rebecca, and, specifically, the character of Mrs Danvers. This story was a little like looking in distorting mirrors, as Tremain plays with fact and fiction
Everybody believes that i am an invented person: Mrs Danvers. They say I am a creation: ‘Miss du Maurier’s finest creation’, in the opinion of many. But I have my own story. I have a history and a soul. I’m a breathing woman
The Jester of Astapovo takes the reality of the death of Leon Tolstoy, but from the point of view of the station master of the little isolated place where Tolstoy, on the run from his wife, came by chance to die
Ivan Ozolin laboriously wrote out a notice, which he pinned above Dmitri’s amll counter. It read: Your Telegraph Operator has not read the works of L.N. Tolstoy, so please do not waste time by asking him any questions about them. Signed: I.A. Ozolin, Stationmaster
I preferred these longer stories, 30 pages or so, to the shorter ones, probably because of the possibility of clearer development of character, as events unfold.
The only story which I was not so enamoured with was the final one, ‘21st century Juliet’ a modern reworking of Romeo and Juliet set across class divides, and incorporating immigrants from Moldavia. This was the only story which seemed a little contrived