I do like the holidays as much as most people – time off from work and an excuse to indulge – what's not to like? But I've never felt compelled to read something on theme whether that be something spooky around Halloween or jolly around Christmas. The only exceptions have been David Sedaris' fantastically irreverent “Santaland Diaries” or, as they are also known, “Holidays on Ice.” If I'm feeling in a particularly sentimental mood there is also Truman Capote's deeply-moving story 'A Christmas Memory.' So I had no plan to seek out holiday reading this year, but then I came upon Rachel Joyce's new book of short stories “A Snow Garden.” I love the understated beauty and quiet wisdom of her writing, especially in her novel “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy.” That same power is carried through into these short stories which are all focused around the Christmas season, but these aren't syrupy tales of holiday cheer. Many of these stories focus on people on the margins like an irascible woman who feels isolated, a father with a history of mental illness trying to make things right with his sons, an older couple whose marriage is splintering apart or a girl's first tentative steps towards becoming social by attending a dance. These stories are very much about redemption and hope, but in a realistic and hard-won sense that won't leave you with a toothache.
Most of the stories are loosely connected to each other or with Joyce's past books. Mention of a flight delay in one story is carried through into another story focused on people stuck at an airport. An unused winter-themed film set for a pop star's holiday special becomes the focal point in another story where a father is trying to rekindle a connection with his sons. I greatly enjoy short story collections which are lightly related to each other because it gives a more fully rounded sense of a fictional world and gives little pleasure triggers when I'm able to join things up. Connections with Joyce's past books are gently done so I don't think a reader will feel left out by not recognizing characters which they've met before. It simply functions like an added bonus for a Rachel Joyce fan who is in the know. One enduring thing which recurs throughout this book is an advert with an image of a girl in a red coat who is in a snowy winter scene. This feels so effective because it seems so true to life: a sentimental image created for commercial purposes which nonetheless effects the mood of the characters who continuously encounter it.
Although these stories are firmly grounded in reality, I like how sometimes Joyce's writing starts stretching the seams. So, when in her touching story 'A Marriage Manual' the couple who have been together their whole lives reach a near breaking point when collaborating on a bicycle's construction, the very construction of the garage around them begins floundering and breaking apart. The only point where I don't feel this works is in her story 'Christmas Day at the Airport' which is a modern-day retelling of the nativity story replete with a lesbian who gives birth, women who bear fragrant gifts from Duty Free and a donkey being held in the animal redemption centre. The concept of this story took over making it feel too manufactured. However, I found every other story in this book to be genuinely moving.
Rachel Joyce has a talent for creating really vivid and intensely-felt characters like a difficult woman named Binny in 'A Faraway Smell of Lemon' and a vibrant rebellious adolescent girl named Patty Driscoll in 'The Boxing Day Ball'. Each line of dialogue builds their personalities to make them feel immediate and real. She doesn't shrink from showing the awkward pauses or repetition of speech which hint at the underlying emotions of her characters. In their normal exchanges and the mundane detail, Joyce reveals hints of profundity in the everyday. In this way she remind me very much of Anne Tyler's fiction. So I really enjoyed reading this book over the Christmas season. Rachel Joyce has another novel forthcoming this year and I'm greatly looking forward to it.