Like GOODBYE MRS CRAVEN, Mollie Panter-Downes account of wartime Great Britain via short stories, Diana Gardner’s THE WOMAN NOVELIST AND OTHER STORIES, is also set in 1940s England.
But there the similarity ends, because Ms. Gardner’s stories have a very different quality from Ms Panter-Downes. Whereas the stories in GOODBYE MRS CRAVEN could best be described as a series of well-observed vignettes, the stories in THE WOMAN NOVELIST have more plot, and therefore more character development. THE LAND GIRL is a story of how a young woman manages the family she is staying with, so that the situation is more to her liking. MISS CARMICHAEL’S BED centers on a relationship between a lady and the woman who has come to work as her maid, and the mystery of what secrets the lady’s bed might contain. THE COUPLE FROM LONDON is about a mysterious death.
The tone of the writing is also very different. Ms. Panter-Downes writing has a definite attitude to it, one could almost say an edge, as her characters complain about various privations they have to undergo. Ms. Gardner’s stories are more gentle, more mild, and perhaps more even-handed. But it you wanted to be judgmental, you could also say that perhaps they are also less interesting than Ms. Panter-Downes because they lack her voice.
However, if you are interested in wartime Britain, or in English life in general, I recommend this volume. It is very British, and may shed some light on a country many people love, but don’t always understand. Four stars. A bookclub recommendation.
GOOD EVENING MRS CRAVEN by Mollie Panter-Downes is a series of wartime stories set in Britain during the Second World War. Like most British people, Ms. Panter-Downes writes fluently and well, and renders the ordinary world in closely observed snapshots. For example:
Everyone got wedged into the room somehow, bibs were hitched round necks, and a subterranean wheezing located Mrs. Parmenter’s little fellows right under their patron’s chair. Mrs. Ramsay, carving the lamb and listening to the nurses babbling of cardigan patterns, thought moodily that this kind of thing might go on for years.
Ms. Panter-Downes stories become darker as the war grinds on. GOODBYE MY LOVE is about the touching parting of a young man and a young woman. When the young man unexpectedly reappears, she bursts into floods of tears, because she will have to say ‘goodbye’ to him all over again. GOOD EVENING MRS. CRAVEN is about the heartbreak of being the ‘other woman’ when your man has gone off to war. Your man is not actually your man, and another woman is his wife, and the relationship is secret (or supposed to be so), getting any news is almost impossible. Unless you resort to subterfuge. THE HUNGER OF MISS BURTON tackles an issue that would have been all-too-familiar to the people who survived through that war. Miss Burton is adult and female, and as such is supposed not to take more than her fair share, leaving the leftovers for the children. But she is so hungry! IT’S THE REACTION is perhaps the saddest story of all, about another adult single female, who yearns for another bomb to drop so that her neighbors will come out of their shells and include her in their lives. Without a crisis, her life is so, so, heartbreakingly, lonely.
There is triviality mixed in with tragedy, pettiness with kindness and the usual day-to-day problems wound together with the reality of war. If you want to know more about the war, and what life was like, these stories provide a good introduction. But you won’t learn much about the characters who inhabit these stories. Though well-defined, they remain largely private. (How English.) Four stars.
Andrea Barrett’s collection of short stories collected into one volume titled SHIP FEVER is interesting. Each story stands alone in its own right, and yet they are connected by the themes of science, love and even century. The opening story HAWKWEEDS is about a tale within a tale. The narrator, a faculty wife, has a connection to Mendel via her grandfather, who met the famous monk when he was a boy. What the husband, does not know, is why the narrator’s grandfather told her about Mendel. But that would spoil the story.
And so we continue. THE ENGLISH PUPIL concerns the old age of the great Linnaeus, declining not-so-gracefully in 1770s Uppsala. THE LITTORAL ZONE is about a torrid affair between two scientists, set in the present. RARE BIRD is how two women outsmarted the great Linnaeus, layered in amongst observations about how difficult it was for an intelligent woman to live a happy and fulfilling life in 1760s England. SOROCHE is a tragic story about loss, set in the present. BIRDS WITH NO FEET is a vivid recreation of the lives of the nineteenth century scientist-explorers, who, inspired by science, set up to collect animals and plants from remote corners of the world. THE MARBURG SISTERS is about a relationship between two sisters, one of who is a biochemist, set in the present. SHIP FEVER is set in 1840s Canada, and concerns a public health tragedy.
What is so amazing about these tales is how well the characters are evoked. Ms Barrett manages to immerse us quickly into their lives and concerns, so much so that we feel as if we know them well after only a few pages. That shows real talent. If you have never read short stories before, or believe you don’t like them, these are for you. Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.
This blog will be taking its annual vacation until the end of August. This means that unless there is something pressing, there won’t be much activity here. Except for my book reviews, because I will be spending my time relaxing…and enjoying lots of books.
I wish you all a great summer, and look forward to seeing you all in September. Exciting things are going to be happening around here. I will be publishing some short stories and poems this fall. And my second novel FAMILY SPLINTERS is due to come out next spring. Stay tuned!