When I picked up this book I wasn’t aware that these were stories. Jumping right in without even looking at the table of contents I was surprised when I came to the end of the first story which is also the title the collection is named after and found a completely separate story next. I instantly connected with the first story on a very personal level because the protagonist takes a lover named Thaddeus. When I was in college I also had a lover by that name. I also fell for the indulgent subject of the story about a somewhat frivolous girl named Beth who loses her lover and goes on to write a best-selling novel about her affair, but retreats into a drunken self-pitying existence. However, the meaning of the story is anything but silly as it seriously questions the meaning of romance and romantic attachment. Is a life spent entirely in unreciprocated love a life really lived at all?
It’s a question that is also usefully considered when reaching the final story in this collection ‘21st-Century Juliet.’ This is a playful modern telling of Romeo and Juliet narrated entirely through the diary of a Juliet living in an upper class British household that has fallen on hard times. With a lot of tongue-in-cheek gestures to the original text, the story questions the way values have changed through the transformation of the plot, insertion of xenophobia and a surprising play on the outcome of the famous story. This is also one of three stories with heavy literary references. ‘The Housekeeper’ is told from the perspective of Daphne du Maurier’s inspiration for the daunting character of Mrs Danvers in “Rebecca.” Here too discrimination is brought into the story where the protagonist Mrs Danowski is warned she should count herself lucky to serve in a great estate considering her Polish Jewish heritage. She enters into a heated tangled love affair with du Maurier who ominously states “I could be dangerous to you and you would not notice it.” The story questions the way fact is superseded by the fiction encapsulated in novels and also how the truer story might be the more interesting one.
Thwarted love is also present in the story ‘The Jester of Astapovo’ which takes as its inspiration Tolstoy’s famous death at an obscure train station. This is a story that was also written about in author Jay Parini’s novel “The Last Station” which was also made into a film. However, Tremain’s story focuses on the station master and his bungled affair with a local woman. When he takes Tolstoy into his home he sees a greater purpose in his life. Tolstoy’s strident feelings for his wife locked her out of the humble cottage where he made his death bed. The station master locks out his wife as well – both physically and emotionally. However, he makes a mistake in underestimating her.
It’s interesting how in some stories Tremain endears us to the characters she’s writing about – only to turn things around mid-tale so that other characters who appear less interesting to both the protagonist and reader turn out to be more than we expect. Isn’t that the way it is with most people we interact with? It’s the case in the deceptively simple story ‘Man in the Water’ where a widower fisherman ponders his daughter’s future and underestimates what she values in life. In one of the most technically ambitious stories ‘Lucy and Gaston’ two people who lost loved ones in WWII are haunted by their memories. The narrative moves back and forth in time, until these two strangers discover some unsettling truths when the complex secrets they both keep are uncovered once they come together. The story ‘Extra Geography’ is a more conventional coming of age story about two adolescent girls who play with their sexuality in a way that inadvertently uncovers deeper truths about what they really desire.
Some of these stories focus on the hidden travails of parents whose central reason for being in life has been skewed by having children. This is the case in ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ which opens with an elderly couple running away from their wayward adult daughter. Unable to take her flippant life decisions, they retreat to a solitary home by a lake in the Canadian forest for an existence they jokingly parallel with the movie On Golden Pond. The themes of that film run in counterpoint to the trajectory of this family. The story seems to radically define the meaning of family and how certain bonds run deeper than expected. In another eerie tale ‘The Closing Door’ a single mother brings her young daughter to a train that will take her to boarding school. This break means that not only is the daughter left alone, but the mother is equally alone, frightened and must find her way as an individual in the world. Rather than finding the freedom of not having to care for a child liberating she is, all at once, fearful of finding a new direction in life: “she had imagined she was moving back into the selfish, grown-up life she loved, but, unknown to her, that life had turned its back and was moving away from her.” These stories prompt the reader to question the meaning of family and what strength we have as individuals apart from them.
Other stories focus on individuals that are steeped in solitude without any family to support them. In the haunting existential tale ‘Captive’ a man living humbly on his own finds a personal passion in keeping a kennel. But when his heating for the dogs is sabotaged he finds himself hemmed in by the animals he’s been charged with caring for and experiences a profound crisis of being. Equally, the story ‘Smithy’ focuses on a man very much on his own, but interestingly the story only shows a snapshot from both the beginning and end of his life with the wide space of time in between raked out completely. It brings into question how much we really change and how fatal it might be to refuse moving out of our own hard-wired routines. It’s important to note that not all these stories come from the viewpoint that romance is doomed and loneliness inevitable. The story ‘Blackberry Winter’ takes as its premise a love affair that appears fated for heartbreak, but which offers a surprising prospect of hope.
Rose Tremain has an excellent ability for incorporating history into the troubling realities of the present - whether that is through setting stories in the past which have a meaning to us in the present or writing about stories in the present which refer back to the past. These short stories are playful, often funny and contain multiple levels of meaning. I've never read anything by Tremain before, but after reading these engaging stories I want to read more.