Belated, the newest short story collection from Elisabeth Russell Taylor, has been recently issued in a gorgeous edition by Kimblewood Press. Only three of the sixteen stories included within it have been published in various magazines, and even if you have read them before, it is possible to view them with a fresh eye.
The book’s blurb states that each one of the stories in this collection ‘sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent’. She is ‘unafraid’, it goes on to say, ‘to probe the dark corners of character… [and] sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life’. Indeed, Russell Taylor is an author whose work is highly praised. She has been shortlisted for several prizes during her writing career, including the Jewish Book of the Year, and publications think highly of her. The Times Literary Supplement, for example, writes that Russell Taylor’s ‘reflective, lyrical prose’ is ‘much admired by other writers’, and one can certainly see why.
Russell Taylor herself is a fascinating woman, and it is clear to see that her own experiences have influenced some of the tales within Belated. Amongst other things, she has lived in several different countries, took her degree at King’s College London at the age of fifty two, and has even starred as an extra in a production of Aïda in Covent Garden. Despite being rather a prolific author – she has over twenty titles to her name when one counts the four anthologies which she is included within, two of which are on the Virago Modern Classics list – Russell Taylor oddly seems to be little read. It is with hope that the publication of Belated will bring her the wider readership which she so deserves.
The titles of the tales within Belated are as varied as the scenes and characters which they present. They range from ‘Who She?’ and ‘Les Amants’, to ‘The Unexpected Marriage of Vanilla to the Stars’. The settings span many geographical locations, and encompass small French villages and nineteenth-century Moscow just as well as post-war London and modern day English seaside towns. The order of the stories has been well considered, and works nicely. Throughout, Russell Taylor touches upon many themes – loneliness, relationships, the melancholy which comes with living after the death of a loved one, poverty, wealth, illness, eccentricity, immigration and the devastation of war, to name but a few.
The longer works at the beginning of Belated give a real feel for Russell Taylor’s style and shrewd eye very early on. The way in which she presents intricate slices of the everyday are reminiscent of the fabulous Alice Munro. The sheer scope of the tales show just how good an author she is, and one cannot help but think that she could deftly turn her hand to writing anything which she pleased.
Throughout, Russell Taylor describes her characters marvellously, so much so that a picture of each and every one is built up immediately in the mind. In ‘Les Amants’, seventy-year-old Fleur Cortot is ‘somewhat stooped, her once flawless complexion the texture of crumpled linen and her once gold-red hair the colour of thin cream’, and in ‘The Contract’, her reimagining of Eugene Onegin, Tatiana ‘was left standing alone, still as marble, yet so fragile that a sharp-edged word might fell her’. The eccentric Alicia in one of the later stories is so sensitively wrought. She presents the human psyche marvellously.
Throughout, Russell Taylor’s writing is stunning, and the details which she describes are often startling and reminiscent of the darker aspects of life. Such phrases as ‘gold rope ties thick enough to hang a man’, ‘a cock crow cleaved the dark’, ‘the air was hard as glass’ and ‘the silver snake of the river’ ensure that all of her stories are tinged with menace.
The earliest three stories here are inspired by different quotes, ranging from thinkers as diverse as Pushkin and Simone Weil. It would have been lovely had this theme of sorts been extended to cover all of the stories, to show that despite the way in which each is a separate imagining, they are still connected to one another nonetheless. Still, Belated is a marvellous collection of short stories, which has something within its wonderful cover design to please each and every reader.