The Stories of Jane Gardam is an exceptional cloth release from Europa Editions. Exceptional because Europa rarely issues cloth editions and exceptional on account of what they have issued, the inventive, exploratory stories of Jane Gardam.
There are thirty stories in this collection dating from 1977 to 2007 although most stories are from the 80’s and 90’s. The stories can reach back further since many of the characters are older and looking back on their lives in the 50’s and 60’s. Gardam reminds me a bit of Barbara Pym and her stories of spinsters and vicars from still earlier decades. But Gardam is more experimental and her scope is wider.
I think of Jane Gardam as the most British of modern writers. Her stories reach very deep into that culture and into a society with fading memories of empire. Many of her characters are seniors who have spent the prime of their lives in foreign postings. I remember the line that the ceilings of embassy rooms are high in order to facilitate cocktail party conversations. Gardam understands the psychology of the expat whose memories of status in the past contrast with their more threadbare present.
There are some wild reaches in this collection: a wife is haunted by a ghost when she declines to follow her husband to a posting in Hong Kong, a story is called “The Boy Who Turned Into a Bike”. There’s a triplet of stories…interesting idea…called “Telegony” which plays with the bizarre notion that offspring can inherit traits from the previous mate of their parent.
There’s a long story in multiple sections called The Green Man, an experiment in retelling an ancient agricultural myth, also a wonderful tale where a mentally disabled homeless man breaks into a empty suburban house…the reach being that Gardam tells the story from the POV of the mentally challenged vagrant. And there’s a wicked little bitch of a tale where a couple at a resort who lament that they rarely run into “their sort” of people are received by the kind of hosts they deserve.
Gardam’s being an England with a traditional look, a COE or Church of England hue seems to be deep dyed into some of the stories. Towards the end of the collection there are a couple of Christmas stories which are fresh and take some of those liberties with realism that I have come to expect from this collection. I never encountered that playful impish quality in Gardam’s novels…strange. Perhaps that quality was in the novels as well but too subterranean for me to detect on a first reading. The holiday stories aren’t designed to appeal to me but I read them anyway and they are good.
The Stories of Jane Gardam have a strong moral cast. That makes me think of them as examples of traditional storytelling. They are also examples of masterly craft. A sheer fastidious skill that knows how to use writing to tell a story rather than to use a story to exemplify writing.
Oh hell, and I loved it when the sharing of half an egg leds to momentous consequences. And I loved it when Gardam knocks off a disagreeable harridan of a mother by having her hit by a truck. You enjoyed that yourself, didn’t you Jane? It was moving, in another story, to see the daughter of the house in such great distress and the only person who noticed was the maid.
The Stories of Jane Gardam are available now. I received a review copy that was graciously offered by Europa Editions.