In this book where all the stories were well written and I felt I understood what all the authors were trying to do, Hilary Mantel's story "Curved is the line of beauty" impressed me the most. I might use it as a model for an exercise. It's in the first-person past tense, looking back on a childhood episode with an adult's eyes. Navigation is a theme but most of all I like the tone
- "Before you can speak, even before you take your first steps outside your house, there is a moment when you're lost or found" (the start, on p.149)
- "I see them, now, from the car window, children any day, on any road; children going somewhere, disconnected from the routes of adult intent. You see them in trios or pairs, in unlikely combinations, sometimes a pair with a little one tagging along, sometimes a boy with two girls. They carry, it might be, a plastic bag with something secret inside, or a stick or box ... they have a geography of their own, urban or rural, that has nothing to do with the milestones and markers that adults use. The country through which they move is older, more intimate than ours" (p.159)
They drive to visit her mother's lover's black friend - "on this particular day, we didn't get lost at all" (p.154). The lover is Jack, the friend is Jacob who's married to Eva, who is white. Perhaps the Jack-Jacob and Eva-Eve similarities matter. On the journey she's told to call Jack "father". When they get there Jacob praises her drawings. All this perhaps makes the 9 year-old protagonist rebel - "In that one moment it seemed to me that the world was blighted and that every adult throat bubbled, like a garbage pail in August, with the syrup of rotting lies" (p.158). She goes for a walk with Jacob's 10 and a quarter year-old niece, Tabby, who "led me on the paths to the heat of the wrecks" (p.160). They become lost in a scrapheap of stacked cars (repeatedly described as "dead" or "carcasses"). And then
- "What came next I cannot, you understand, describe in clock-time. I have never been lost since, not utterly lost, without the sanctuary of sense; without the reasonable hope that I will and can and deserve to be saved" (p.161)
- "I felt, for the first time and not the last, that death at least is straightforward. Tabby stopped, her breath tight and short, and held out to me the last plum stone, the kernel, sucked clear of flesh. I took it without disgust from her hand. Tabby's troubled eyes looked at it. It sat in my palm, a shrivelled brain from some small animal. Tabby leaned forward. She was still breathing hard. The edge of her littlest nail picked at the convolutions. She put her hand against her ribs. She said, 'It is the map of the world'" (p.162)
Soon, out of the blue, the protagonist punches Tabby in the face, drawing blood. There's barely a reaction. All very strange. Religion is a sub-theme
- "The other way of being lost, when I was a child, was by being damned. Damned to hell that is, for all eternity. This could happen very easily if you were a Catholic child in the 1950s" (p.149)
- "There is a certain prayer which never fails. It is to St Bernard; or by him, I was never quite clear ... it was the most powerful prayer ever invented ... But just as I was about to begin, I realized I must not say it after all. Because if it didn't work ..." (p.163)
- "Lost is not now a major capacity of mine. I don't generally have to resort to that covert shuffle whereby some women turn the map upside down to count off the junctions. They say that females can't read maps and never know where they are, but recently the Ordnance Survey has appointed its first woman director, so that particular slander loses its force. I married a man who casts a professional eye on the lie of the land, and would prefer me to direct with references to tumuli, streambeds and ancient monuments. But a finger tracing the major routes is enough for me" (p.164)
On p.157 there's "bl...k". On p.161 there's "bl...kened" and "bl...k" to describe the wrecks, which looks a bit odd. Earlier the main character is told not to describe Jacob as "black", but the whole white/black sub-plot seems a distraction to me.
I liked Penelope Fitzgerald's "The Red-Haired Girl" too. 5 Parisian art students in 1882 go to the Brittany coast to do some plein air painting. Hackett employs a reluctant model who suddenly bursts out with "I don't know why you came here in the first place. There's nothing here, nothing at all. If it's oysters you want, they're better at Cancale. There's nothing here to tell one morning from another, except to see if it's raining ... You can spend your whole life here, wash, pray, do your work, and all the time you might as well not have been born" (p.26). Their prof turns up, criticizes the plein air concept and Hackett's technique. The model doesn't appear again. The story ends with
|Anny, it turned out, had been dismissed for stealing from the hotel - some money, and a watch. 'You had better have a look through your things', the laundrywoman said, 'and see there's nothing missing. One often doesn't notice till a good while afterwards.' (p.30)|
Shena Mackay's piece includes this
|The 196 bus is elusive and blue and plies between Norwood and Brixton, painted with advertisements for Italy and the Caribbean, and seems to those who ride in it to have been stamped out of tin or constructed from rusty Meccano. It shudders and judders, the windows rattle in their sockets and are assaulted by branches of chestnut trees (p.1)|
I can't help thinking that not all those who ride in it really think that. It's a strange thing to assert - an unreliable narrator of sorts. And do windows have sockets? Don't they have frames? I like the following though, where I presume that prickly-holly is intentional, a running joke between the couple.
She touched her friend's hand and offered a cigarette, and was answered by a shift of the shoulder.|
"Don't be so prickly, Holly."
Holly moved into the seat across the aisle.
"Well, I see this is going to be one of our memorable outings", Terry said to the window. (p.2)
The Julian Barnes and David Malouf pieces were more than ok. Ditto Ali Smith's, Lasdun's and McGahern's, though McGahern writes sentences that I never would - e.g. "An intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick expressive movement" (p.80). Not so hot were J.Maclaren Ross's, Harrison's, Jacobson's, Chaudhuri's or Rose's stories. Helen Simpson's and Tibor Fischer's were rather better than those. Simpson's story included the following passages - some funny, some puzzling
"Never drink when you're angry, lonely, tired, hungry or bored."
"So, never", said Holly. "Basically. Cheers." (p.53)
This was all done in what Lois privately called Polonius-speak (p.54) Her thoughts strode ahead of her in seven-league boots.
By the end of the meal Holly had drunk a good deal. her eyes looked skew-whiff, as though they were trying to regroup on the same side of her nose, like a flounder (p.54)
Paul Magrs's "Here Comes Glad" might be more nostalgic character sketch than story. It worked well, ending with the use of a Polaroid camera (it's the 1980s)
"Olive always comes out well on bally snaps", Glad said. "It's because she doesn't care how she looks."|
"Smile!" Olive laughed. "Everyone smile, you bugger!"
We did, and we watched each other's print develop slowly; the blues, yellows and greens rising out of the flat grey, once the camera had clicked, whirred and flashed. All of us had bright red eyes. (p.148)