Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

"Midsummer night in the workhouse" by Diana Athill (Persephone Books, 2011)

Some of these stories were written in the 50s, and it shows. I don't think the first piece is any good. I wondered whether to give up. The second was better, and I liked the third story - cultural misunderstandings compounded by linguistic difficulties. The main characters discover that not all men/foreigners are the same. In several of the pieces an adventurous woman is in an alien setting - their first ball, an artists' retreat, etc. The issue of whether/how to have sex hovers, the liberated woman's reasoning overcoming physical urges - daring vs control; art vs life.

"A weekend in the country" is typical. A female artist living in London is going out with Richard, a landowner from the area where she grew up. He invites her to meet his family for a weekend. After a meal around a big table where she's the only one in favour of building an open prison nearby, the two of them go for a picnic on a deserted island. She's physically drawn to him while also being aware of his conservatism. His marriage proposal provokes an adverse reaction and they break up. The plot sounds like that of a Woman's magazine story, but there's sufficient pace and ambivalence to sustain interest - she's returning to childhood haunts while at the same time experiencing an alien culture. Civilisation and High Society contrasts with the dunes and winds, the open prison symbolising a compromise. And the dialogue sounds real enough.

Some passages sound awkward - e.g. "Roger, who for twenty years, since he was seventeen, had been ..." (p.104) or puzzling - "He had a lot to do, and he had not exactly forgotten it. He might, though, have wrapped the impending afternoon in a bulky parcel and dropped it into a pool of some opaque substance through which it was now sinking. A Thursday afternoon in March submerged" (p.104).

Marriage seems restrictive to the women narrators in these stories - suppose you meet someone more suitable later? The married women relish their moments of freedom - a holiday alone, a drunk walk home alone. Many of the stories involve the first time a couple sleep together - or don't. Sometimes the point of a story seems to be that a woman can choose to sleep with a man. The men don't come out of it too badly, though there are exceptions - "It became apparent that he distrusted anything and anyone he didn't understand. Women he mistakenly didn't distrust because he thought he understood them, being able to please them in bed as he could; but any man whose experience covered different things from his own he bristled at and had to put them down" (p.157). Men tend to behave differently in a group (at a party, say) to the way they behave when just with a partner.

I liked "An Island" though I think the drunken stream-of-consciousness seems a mite over-controlled. The final story, "Buried", for a change doesn't involve a rutting couple but a pair of middle aged siblings walking in the dark after a little accident.

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