There must be something in the air, or the water, or just the literary DNA of England, that breeds great writers of great longevity.
One of them is the prolific Jane Gardam, still writing now in her mid-80s, a two-time Whitbread Prize winner recently acclaimed for her 15th novel, “Last Friends” — part of her witty, absorbing series chronicling the life of international lawyer Sir Edward Feathers, nicknamed Old Filth (as in, “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”).
What her growing legion of American fans may not know is that Gardam is also an excellent short story author. A new collection of her short fiction offers 28 condensed works of a writer who has clearly mastered that alchemical craft.
Written between 1977 and 2007, the tales in “The Stories of Jane Gardam” range in locale from throughout England, to Geneva, Malta and Hong Kong. The British protagonists are wealthy and down at the heels, young and elderly, accomplished and obscure. And each of their portraits is rendered with a deftness and incisiveness, a scrupulousness and compassion, that swiftly draws one in — then surprises.
In “Lunch with Ruth Sykes,” a woman who has always found her doctor daughter alien and remote clumsily but lovingly tries to salvage her child’s breaking heart. In “Swan,” a prep-school kid reluctantly volunteers to befriend a mute Chinese boy, and is enriched by their odd encounters in unexpected ways.
“The Sidmouth Letters” is another miniature marvel. The complicated relationship between a male literary lion and a former pupil he appropriated research from takes a new twist when she is dispatched to purchase some letters on his behalf — allegedly, some newly unearthed correspondence between Jane Austen and a would-be lover. That these letters are in the possession of a quirky family in the village where she grew up gives the story the kind of bracing humor and quietly revelatory turnabout that Gardam employs often.
Like Katherine Mansfield (to whom she is often favorably compared), and other masters of the short form, Gardam can distill an entire life (and era) into a compact container. Though unsentimental, she drills beyond the contained English temperament to tap depths of feeling. In a tale like “Unknown Child,” in which a couple vacations in Italy after the wife has miscarried, she explores subtle colorations of love.
Numerous stories gaze unblinkingly at death (of individuals, and of a generation defined by World War II and the last gasps of empire), and most deliver that sharp stroke of irony which triggers epiphany.
In “The Easter Lilies,” a woman dies with a load of much-desired blossoms in her arms. In “Groundlings,” a passionate theatergoer perishes as she lived.
But in the telling details there is also humor. And Gardam can charm with playfulness too. She can transform an unrequited suitor into a bicycle, and subvert a mermaid fairy tale with a switched-up ending. Life may be as expected in the humanity of these deeply engaging stories. And yet, somehow, anything is possible.