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‘Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories’ by Celia Fremlin *****

Having read two of Celia Fremlin’s books now, The Hours Before Dawn, and this rather wonderful and chilling short story collection, I feel that I can say with some compunction that she is an undeservedly neglected writer.  I have plans to read all of her books – and she was rather prolific, it must be said – over the next couple of years on the strength of just these two tomes, as what I have seen within both has impressed me no end.

Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, which has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Fremlin’s work, by Faber Finds, includes a fascinating and insightful introduction by Chris Simmons, which tells of the author’s life and inspiration: ‘Here was a middle-class woman who seemed to delight in re-inventing herself; and while all writers draw upon their own experiences to some existent, “reinvention” is the key to any artist’s longevity.’  He goes on to praise her writing, saying that Fremlin ‘succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’ 9780571312719

Simmons also states that Fremlin’s work in its entirety offers ‘authentic snapshots of how people lived at the time of her writing: how they interacted, what values they held…  Every interaction between her characters has a core of truth and should strike a resonant note.’  Indeed, that is very much the case with this collection of short fiction.  The tales here are variously described as ‘eclectic, delectable, perfectly formed nibbles’.

The overarching feeling one gets from Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is an unsettling one, with something sinister waiting just around the corner.  The first piece in the collection, ‘The Quiet Game’, for instance, has a second paragraph which begins thus: ‘But madness has a rhythm of its own up there so near to the clouds; a rhythm that at first you would not recognize, so near is it, in the beginning, to the rhythms of ordinary, cheerful life…’.

Fremlin’s writing throughout is strong.  In ‘The New House’, for example, she writes: ‘The hatred seemed to thicken round her – I could feel giant waves of it converging on her, mounting silently, silkily, till they hung poised above her head in ghostly, silent strength.’  The stories here come from a more mature point in Fremlin’s life, written as they were whilst the author was in her fifties.  There is, perhaps unsurprisingly with that in mind, an emphasis upon ageing, and the stories which deal with senility are the most chilling of all.

Each of the stories within Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is vivid and perfectly paced.  Some of them have otherworldly and fantastical elements to them, but the way in which they and their characters have been built and presented smacks of realism, which serves to make the whole even more unsettling.  Each story is filled to the brim with tension, suspense and intrigue, but at no point is anything overdone.  Rather, Fremlin’s writing is incredibly controlled, and every single one of her characters is startlingly realistic.  The tales veer off in unexpected directions, making Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark both surprising and compelling.  Fremlin demonstrates on every page that she truly is a marvellous writer, one which deserves to be read far more widely.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

I was so excited when I opened this most beautiful of books on Christmas morning.  The entirety is so well presented, from its beautiful silver-foiled cover, to the fact that it comes complete with a contents page.

The blurb of The World’s Wife is so enticing: ‘That saying?  “Behind every famous man…?”  From Mrs Midas to Queen Kong, from Elvis’ twin sister to Pygmalion’s bride, they’re all here, in The World’s Wife.  Witty and thought-provoking, this tongue-in-cheek, no-holds-barred look at the real movers and shakers across history, myth and legend…  the wives of the great, the good, the not so good, and the legendary are given a voice in Carol Ann Duffy’s sparkling and inventive collection’.

Each and every poem within the book’s pages is so clever.  Duffy tells tales which we all know, and which form great parts of our human consciousness, from the perspectives of the women who appear within them.  ‘Little Red Cap’ is narrated by Red Riding Hood, and ‘Queen Herod’ from the viewpoint of Herod’s wife, who states that it was her idea to ‘kill each mother’s son’ so that no man would be able to make her baby daughter cry, for example.

The World’s Wife is absolutely beautiful in terms of the writing within each poem, and each syllable has clearly been so carefully thought out.  Duffy has a marvellous way with words, able to craft such vivid images in just a single line or two.

(From ‘Thetis):
‘I was wind, I was gas,
I was all hot air, trailed
clouds for hair.
I scrawled my name with a hurricane
when out of the blue
roared a fighter plane’

I love the different techniques which have been used throughout.  This causes each and every poem to stand out within the collection.  Each voice which has been crafted is distinctive.  In The World’s Wife, Duffy has demonstrated that she is the creme de la creme of contemporary poetry.

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‘Letters from Klara’ by Tove Jansson *****

‘The rich seam that is Jansson’s adult prose continues with this penultimate collection of short stories, written in her seventies at the height of her Moomin fame and translated into English for the first time. In these light-footed, beautifully crafted yet disquieting stories, Jansson tells of discomfiting encounters, unlooked for connections and moments of isolation that span generations and decades. Letters From Klara proves yet again her mastery of this literary form.’

9781908745613I could not resist ordering a newly translated collection of short stories by one of my absolute favourite authors when I first heard about it, and I dove in almost immediately. Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara is such a treat. Each tale was written whilst Jansson was in her seventies; one can see a marked shift between these contemplative pieces, and those of her younger years, which share an extremely perceptive vivacity. The stories within the collection are largely quiet and slowly paced, but they are all the lovelier for it. The blurb of Letters from Klara, in fact, describes them as ‘subtle’ and ‘light-footed’ stories, descriptions which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Letters from Klara provides a wonderful breather from the hectic modern world. Its stories are varied and quite diverse, but humanity is at the core of each. A lot of the stories are about ageing and death, clearly subjects which become more pressing and important during Jansson’s literary career. Letters from Klara is neither her best, not her most memorable, collection, but it is absolutely filled to the brim with tiny gems, and gorgeously evoked slices of life which appeal to all of the senses.

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‘The Lost Daughter Collective’ by Lindsey Drager *****

I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective.  Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.

The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole.  This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well.  We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.31305921

Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms.  The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life.  The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city.  The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’  The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing.  ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism.  When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life.  The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait.  Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’

I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles.  The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm.  The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them.  There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective.  There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.

Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously.  She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories.  Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale.  Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.

There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own.  The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards.  The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach.  It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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‘May We Shed These Human Bodies’ by Amber Sparks *****

I adored Amber Sparks’ second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which my parents bought for me from the wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York last year.  I was therefore markedly impatient to get my hands on her debut short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies.  Despite the moderate expense for a secondhand book, and the fact that I had to order it from the USA, I decided that it would be the perfect treat to read whilst on holiday in France in August.

May We Shed These Human Bodies has been very well received.  Matt Bell writes that it ‘is a collection of marvellous inventions, each one a wonder-machine propelled by fairytale and dream and human and hope, ready to carry us off into new adventure’, and Ben Loory captures his thoughts thus: ‘I always love a book that makes me fear for the writer’s sanity.  I’m over here praying for Amber Sparks.’.

9780983422877There is almost an ethereal quality to Sparks’ books; her prose is complex and multilayered.  Some of the stories within May We Shed These Human Bodies are strange, and all are startling.  There are some very short stories to be found within her debut, which run to less than two full pages.  Others are quite a bit longer.  The individuality of each tale shines through; whilst none of them are alike, the collection is coherent, and reads like a singular unit.  This is helped, in part, with the unusual, intriguing, and quirky titles Sparks gives to her stories.  Here, they range from ‘The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures’ and ‘Gone and Gone Already’, to ‘All the Imaginary People are Better at Life’ and ‘The Ghosts Eat More Air’.

I could quote extensively from May We Shed These Human Bodies, beautiful and thought-provoking as it is, but rather than ruin some great surprises for those of you whose interest is piqued, I shall whet your interest by sharing the initial paragraph of ‘The City Outside of Itself’: ‘The City longed to travel.  He hadn’t been anywhere in ages, and wanted to see what things looked like outside of himself.  So the City asked his best friend Tammie if she would mind giving him a lift.  Tammie took her gum out of her mouth and twirled it around and around her index finger, pink on peach on pink, while she thought about it.’

May We Shed These Human Bodies is a beguiling and absorbing collection, from an author who already has such a distinctive voice.  Sparks’ use of language is often beautiful and original, and sometimes loaded with meaning.  A great balance of reality and magical realism has been struck.  All of these stories here chill, and sing, and sparkle, and Sparks’ playfulness serves to make the collection entirely surprising.  Inventive, creative, and intelligent, May We Shed These Human Bodies became a firm favourite of mine on my first reading, and is certainly a tome which I hope to pick up many more times in the future.

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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