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Torbay Library Services Short Story Challenge Reading Group

The [Short] Story So Far

The first meeting of the Short Story Group took place in December and a lively debate was enjoyed by all. Indeed, so much did everyone have to say about the five tales short-listed for the 2006 Short Story Prize that an hour and a half seemed only minutes. We could have continued for much longer! A couple of members had prior commitments and were unable to attend, but they have dutifully sent in their “homework”! 

I enjoyed this book for the variety of topics and styles, and for the renewed pleasure in a literary form that I often overlook as I browse the library shelves. I was interested in the assertion in the preface that one place where the short story thrives is Radio 4. I am an addict of the station and the stories are a major source of pleasure. I was also pleased to know from Paul which story had won, as I deliberately chose to read it last in order to assess if I found agreement with the judges.

I have not been in the habit in recent years of reading many short stories, preferring to immerse myself in a novel or biography, and the longer the better. So it was with great interest that I began reading the collection. I read them before reading the article by William Boyd, which I then found most enlightening. I learned much about the different genres, and realised that the short story is in fact not always what I thought it ought to be, which is a mini-novel! My review notes were first scribbled as I read, so are truly first impressions.

The Flyover by Rana Dasgupta

This was traditional story telling technique. "In the city of Lagos there was once a young man named Marlboro." It begins thus, in the manner of a legend or even like a fable by Aesop. And it is a morality tale, narrated with economy, but in a modern setting, and on a modern theme of individual and corporate greed. At the same time the theme is as old as any tale we have, so the style is doubly appropriate. As in any good fairy tale, the protagonist suffers the fate his actions deserve, but there is no hero or heroine to triumph, thus giving a wryly jaundiced view of our capitalistically obsessed era. The walling up of Marlboro was truly an old punishment made current. I thought this story was succinct without losing anything to economy, and I enjoyed it.

Relationships seem shallow, skimming the surface. No emotion shown; eg when Marlboro's mother leaves; "He never saw her again." Time passes in a way that feels rushed, unlike in a novel. "Marlboro threw himself into his work, and quickly proved to be a valuable asset to Mr. Bundu's enterprise." (I know I shouldn't be comparing to a novel, but at this stage, coming straight from the middle of a long novel, can't help it!) But I don't like Marlboro. He spies on friends, and is only interested in those who are useful. Are we supposed to feel that he is a "victim" due to his father leaving and his mother's inadequacies? This doesn't work for me.

Are we supposed to feel that he is mentally deficient? This is more of a possibility for me as the Asabi incidents are strange and "only in his mind." Marlboro is a bit of a cardboard cut-out of a character, with the only really human aspect being seen in his brief relationship with Ona. The little notes he wrote her were tender and poignant. The other moments of real humanity were shown in (a) "how could he kill a man reading a newspaper?" and (b) when he had shot him "he was smaller than he looked in life and below the desk his shirt had been untucked". I didn't feel any real emotion when Marlboro holed himself up in the wall, whereas I would have expected to feel sad. He just seemed to bring it all on himself and somehow I felt little pity.

The Safehouse by Michel Faber

This is a very visual tale. It reminds me of the opening of a crime movie, with perhaps a voice-over to accompany the vivid scene in which our narrator outlines his predicament and hints at its origins. The concept of a homeless man wandering hostile streets wearing a T shirt on which his ID details and other info is displayed is most successfully conveyed and engenders curiosity mixed with unease.

As the tale progresses this does not change for me, and as we see him find the mysterious Safehouse and enter its building and society, to be told by one resident "Nobody's ever gonna see you again. That's why you're here. That's why they let you in", the air of the surreal is heightened. The practical arrangements for eating and sleeping build on the strange atmosphere, so that by the final statement from the narrator, "I am no longer missing", the reader too has been sucked into the harsh provision for lost people that exists, at some near future date, it would seem, in our society. I found this story thought provoking, unnerving, and very successful in almost mesmerising me into reading it all through.

An intriguing beginning. What it must be like to sleep rough is well described in sickening detail, also of being homeless and having to invent little aims in life as there are none of the normal ones left. e.g. working out what day of the week it is. I feel sad for him when he says "It's good to have something to get on with." Then, I am really intrigued. (extra intrigued, as I already want to know what it is his wife would never forgive him for, "Never, ever.") What is it with the T-shirt? Why are people all staring? Who put all that text on there? WHY DOESN'T HE TAKE IT OFF AND READ IT AND TELL ME WHAT IT SAYS?

Later, I don't understand what is going on in the safehouse. Why does Eric say "Nobody's ever going to see you again. . .that's why you're here. They can tell you're ready." Ready for what? It has a sinister feel, even though those in charge seem benign. I am intrigued so much of the time in this story. ’The nurse says with conviction, "No--one falls here. This is the safehouse." Why is she so sure he won't fall? The ladder is high and he is afraid of heights. When he eats the lamb stew, he says "I haven't had anything this wholesome since my…for a long time anyway." Damn! He nearly told me something about his past and then didn't.

There is some wonderful writing in this story. Descriptive: "The sky loses its hold on the rain and starts tossing it down in panic"; "Mummified behind a patina of discoloured varnish" (about a portrait); "Cosy as an underground car park" (the safehouse hall). The people radiate "an aura of consensual hopelessness." I was moved by the following: "…disturbed almost to tears by the softness of the toilet paper." Also, "I could weep with gratitude. Except of course I don't weep any more." And: "To ignore me would require a greater fascination with something else, and here is nothing" (when the others stare without any spark of real interest.)

I feel let down by the end of the story; or by the fact that it doesn't feel like a "proper" ending. He is not exactly missing anymore, yet has seemingly achieved his aim, which appears to be to be a missing person forever. After all, prison is not what he wants, because family can visit, so your whereabouts is known. He no longer worries about being found; yet the last sentence is "I am no longer missing." Strange! I need to think about this a bit more. Come back Kafka, all is forgiven!

An Anxious Man by James Lasdun

This I read last on purpose as I knew it had won. I thought the beginning was superb, as the dialogue between husband and wife, Joseph and Elise, was crisp but swiftly set the scene and roused the reader's curiosity. True to the confines of the form, the action unfolds at a pace, and we are plunged into a world we can all recognise, not because we live in that particular way, but because the ghastly preoccupation with material success and acquisition is so much a thing of our time.

The affluent American setting tends for me to confirm existing prejudices, but the way in which Joseph is brought twice to experience his puny nature, physically and morally is marvellously done. His swim across the lake shows us a man diminished by his fears. These are caused by the absence of his wife and daughter after a tiff, and his mounting anxiety as he swims, but his fears are soon allayed when they come back, having made new friends.

I found this a clever device, because later, the daughter truly appears to be missing, both to husband and wife, and the nightmare evoked reflects the earlier episode in a heightened way. When even this has a happy and innocent outcome, Joseph has learned nothing in the process and returns to his obsessive watch on the stock market, which we know overrides his time with his daughter, and is corroding his marriage.

Truly a tale for our time. Amazingly complex in a short space. Moving from setting to setting with skill and ease. Again no sympathetic characters but it worked it's magic for me because they illustrated trends in our society so I saw them as generalisations rather than rounded creations. I had no quarrel with the award to this story.

It is obvious that the main character is very uptight. The way the story starts with short sharp nervy bits of dialogue seems to highlight this too. The way Joseph becomes obsessed with thoughts of money only after they have some is well described, eg "At three hundred dollars a day for the house alone he couldn't afford not to be enjoying himself."

The whole lobster incident seems a bit drawn out, although it does tell me all I need to know about the character of Veronica. There are some brilliant bits of description about feeling anxious. I liked "But knowing that in twenty minutes you were going to legitimately succumb to anxiety was not very different to succumbing to it right now."

The descriptions of trying to avoid panic were spot on too, and the joyful relief. But tellingly, he tries to quash those feelings as well, thinking them equally negative as irrational anxiety. In fact, he distrusts feelings and instincts altogether I think. He should not feel ashamed of them, as he does at the end of the story. (I almost wanted the daughter to be missing as it would have been a more exciting story – and maybe have turned into a novel!)

The Ebony Hand by Rose Tremain

I like this author's work, but found this story unsatisfactory because the central character, Mercedes, failed to engage my sympathy, and the Norfolk setting, together with the cast of variously sad or malfunctioning characters was so depressing. I was not comfortable with the portrayal of repressed sensuality, or the view of the abandoned Nicolina becoming, as she matured, principally a sexual objective. The treatment of Mercedes over her wish to own the ebony hand was vindictive, and at the end of my reading I was glad to be gone. There was not enough redemption or possibility of it, to make this a success for me.

This felt like a "proper" story from the start; but would it fizzle out? I enjoyed the details of daily life and felt a bit worried for Mercedes being so alone. Then, when she was no longer alone, but had her niece living with her, knew that no good would come of Mercedes settling on Paul Swinton so early on as a husband for Nicolina.

My prediction was right, but I thought that Paul ending up in the Bin because of the girl's rejection was a bit far-fetched and that she was obviously better off without him. (Mind you, he had been a bit weird from the start.) I felt glad that Mercedes managed to end up with the ebony/mahogany hand to bring some consolation. Inanimate objects perhaps shouldn't mean much in this world, in the scale of things, but can often become real anchors for people who feel adrift. Or strong symbols. (Oh what memories the mention of Tommy Steele brought back! I still have a picture of him in my 1958 diary!)

Men of Ireland by William Trevor

Not a comfortable read, and certainly not intended so. The author depicts with economy but clear delineation a down and out Irishman returning to the place where he was young, and also the now elderly priest who we are not 100% sure about even at the end. The visitor levels accusations from the long ago. He makes threats, is resisted but gains such cash as is available. Both men return to the life they know. Both are affected by the meeting after so long, but the reader is left with enough uncertainty to be reduced to rereading and thinking about the true implications. A masterly piece of story telling for me. Not sure enjoyable is quite the right word. Perhaps respect would fit the bill.

At first I thought that the man was to do with "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland and going back for revenge. I certainly found myself wanting to know his purpose. As soon as Prunty said "It wasn't work I came for" and "Things happened when I was a server" and there was a priest involved, of course I thought "Oh, here we go again; another story about abuse in the Catholic Church." And it was. But far cleverer than it might have been. Because in reality, this particular priest was innocent, but "guiltless, he was guilty." In wondering if he was being confused with another priest, this priest was "diminished by the sins that so deeply stained his cloth." The man's earlier kindness in trying to befriend the boy and belp him, at his mother's request, has backfired after all these years. At least, that's how I interpret it..

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