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NewPages Book Reviews: "Gardam's preference for short stories shows in this extraordinary collection of great writing."

Date: Sep 1 2014

The Stories of Jane Gardam will delight Gardam’s fans, who may find something new here. Unlike Gardam’s most famous novel Old Filth, but not unlike the ending of the third book in her trilogy Last Friends, these stories explore what may not be real. They also hold the element of mystery, fantasy, and surprise endings. Spanning from 1977 to 2007, these stories give a broader overview of Gardam’s talents, her favorite themes very visible. Fans will relish rereading the famous Christmas scene of Filth and Veneering as well as seeing them again in a sample from The People of Privilege Hill collection, together with the two minor friends Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith from Last Friends. Everyone will enjoy Gardam’s variety in her humor and great writing.


The Whitbread Award’s only two-time winner, Jane Gardam uses Britishisms, unfamiliar to American readers. However, her unusual Dickensian characters delight. With snatches of information and sideways glances at her characters, one needs to be a careful reader. For instance, “The Sidmouth Letters” is not primarily about those letters, nor the death of a professor’s wife at the story’s opening. Instead, the student narrator reveals the real focus on the unlikable professor himself.


Gardam’s humor is wry, as in “The People of Privilege Hill,” where Dulcie’s late mysterious guest, a Father Ambrose, arriving without an umbrella, inspires the other guests (except Filth) to send umbrellas to the Farm Street Church where they’ve never heard of Father Ambrose. Gardam has fun with stories like “The Great, Grand Soap-Water Kick,” told from the perspective of a hobo breaking into homes for his bath. One of the two older schoolboys in “Swan” is confronted with Chinese cooking, “He ate another egg and thought, two snakes. They’ll breed. I will die. He took a great swig of tea and smiled faintly.” And in “Green Man,” Gardam even pictures Death coming in on a black Yamaha.


Most of the stories could be said to have one theme—the importance of love. But within that, other themes appear. For one example, “The Tribute” involves social prejudice, revealed through the comeuppance of three wealthy ladies for their bad treatment of their nanny. Another theme is mourning. From Gardam’s unusual slant in “The Stone Trees,” a widow becomes enchanted by her husband’s son by another woman. Another theme, exemplified in both “Showing the Flag” and “Missing the Midnight,” emerges from the perspective of children who do not think their parents and sibling love them, discovering just the opposite at the end. In “Telegony” even a frightening mother advises to marry for love:


It wouldn’t matter if the man did not love her. Forget that. If she never out-and-out loved someone. . . love till it aches. . . she’d be dead forever. To marry for escape, to marry for money. . . from boredom or for protection or security were immoral motives.


Gardam’s characters often relive their past, even without the outside world’s understanding.


But what might seem new here is Gardam’s exploration of what is not real, giving us surprise endings and mysteries. In the ghost stories—“A Spot of Gothic” and “Soul Mates”—the ghost blends into the real world: “The Phillipses. . . standing quite still. And then as if a pause-button had been released, they began to move forward over the grass.”


Further, Gardam reworks Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” in “Pangs of Love” with a feminist slant and the Christmas tree is reborn into a “The Green Man” with environmental concerns. And many endings are surprises, like sudden deaths in “Dixie Girls,” “The Easter Lilies,” and “Groundlings”:


I am writing down all that I know about her because it is not all, and because of the wonderful thing that happened the day she died, and if you don’t believe a word of it, what do I care? Shakespeare’s plots were unbelievable. Larger than life. When people say to me, ‘Oh, I say—another story larger than life’, I say to myself, think of Shakespeare. Think for example of the story of The Winter’s Tale, and I say, ‘Things may be larger than your life but they are not larger than mine.’


The writing is superb, either in short form – elastic bands in a mailbox “like tagliatelle,” or in longer descriptions, such as in “Telegony”:


Bride after bride, like puffs of foam, surrounded by bouquets of bridesmaids. Stiff egg-white dresses swung in the breeze, a veil suddenly flew up in the air like a pillar of salt.


In her introduction, Gardam admits to preferring writing short stories:


A story is a steady timed flame. . . Short stories can have the power to burn up the chaff, harden the steel without comment or embellishment or explanation.


Only a couple stories, "The First Adam" and "Grace," are not up to the standard of the rest, being unusually hard to follow and having less interesting characters, but Gardam's preference for short stories shows in this extraordinary collection of great writing.