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Boston Globe: "Here is a writer who delivers the world we live in - the present world and the remembered world - with memorable and moving skill."

Date: Oct 1 2008

The territory of Jane Gardam's new story collection, The People on Privilege Hill, is the landscape of old age, full of regrets and nostalgia and confusion and peevish worry, full of the body at its least charming and most derelict and uncertain, full of shambling and rumblings and stark terror at the approaching nearness of death. Gardam, who has also written for and about children and young adults, has an equally sympathetic eye for those who are growing old; there is nothing sentimental, no whiff of cheap melancholy in her treatment of the characters here.

These are stories about growing old, about widowers and spinsters and grandmothers, about the harrowing sympathies and isolation and consolation of long marriages and long lives, but in the natural diminishments of age, Gardam finds a rich drama, an opening up to the world, rather than a withdrawal from it, a complication of humanity rather than a reduction of it. The accumulated experience of the lives revealed in these stories gives them the depth of memory and the weight of consequence.

A number of the stories deal with the private, interior intelligence of those who are old and alone, whose lives have been shorn away - by the separation from friends and family, by the isolation conferred by age - like floating islands from the mainland of ordinary human commerce. In "The Hair of the Dog," an old woman arrives late for lunch with her grown daughter, having lost herself in a memory of that daughter's wedding and the hurts and misunderstandings of that occasion. Everyone on the busy London streets looks frantic to Eleanor when she alights from the train that morning, and her daughter Rosie is frantic, too - no one can begin lunch until Eleanor arrives, and Rosie is worried - but the memories that have occupied Eleanor as she has wandered into the London neighborhood of her past have unrolled like a bolt of intricately woven fabric. The richness of the narrative of Eleanor's history, the oblique, meditative pace of reverie, allows time for detail; Eleanor recalls her house as it waited in readiness on the night before Rosie's wedding day a quarter-century before: "Everywhere about the Wimbledon mansion was perfect - cutlery, table linen, crates of champagne. Late daffodils shone in white clumps in the twilight. The marquee, like a grounded cloud, stood silver by the spinney under the white moon." Objects float up in Eleanor's memory, rich with the symbolic effect acquired by things that stand like signposts in a long life.

Gardam is wonderful at observing the dislocations that separate people from the heedless and fast-paced traffic of the rest of the world. As Eleanor pauses on that London street, for instance, "there fell one of the mysterious silences that occasionally drop over London: the lull, the pause that happens in no other capital city (George had always said it was to do with the alignment of traffic lights) and that she had forgotten. Tears filled her eyes with the beauty of the silence, its promise. London froze." Here Gardam conjures a nearly magical cessation, but similar moments of almost occult reckoning occur frequently throughout these stories. Thus in "The Fledgling," a mother dropping off her grown son at college - a boy who leaps cruelly from the car without even saying goodbye - drives off blind with pain. "Then, some way down the pitiless asphalt in the gathering dark, she stopped the car again and rested her head against the steering wheel. A huge tract of her life passed sadly by." The processional quality of this moment - the mother's life advancing like a funeral cortege - is beautifully drawn.

The final story in the collection, "The Last Reunion" finds four friends gathered for the occasion of the closing of their college. The day proceeds in dreamlike fashion as the group wanders along the lawns and the lupin borders, beside the lake and the botanic gardens and the "grotto with the dry fountain," reconnoitering old classmates and teachers in a circle of basket chairs on the grass. As the secrets of their shared and separate pasts come back to them in forceful gusts, they encounter again the powerful, fleeting passions of their youth. One of the friends, Elizabeth, is tilting toward the dark abyss of Alzheimer's. "We'd none of us forgotten you, you know," Lily says to Elizabeth. "We never will." Elizabeth's mild rejoinder, "Don't count on it," is shocking in its matter-of-fact assessment of memory's power to rescue our lives from oblivion.

Lines from William Stafford's beautiful poem "For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid" came to me while reading "The People on Privilege Hill": "What you fear / will not go away: it will take you into / yourself and bless you and keep you. / That's the world, and we all live there." Here is a writer who delivers the world we live in - the present world and the remembered world - with memorable and moving skill.