Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives ed. Sarah Weinman

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Who could resist a book with such a fabulous title and cover? Certainly not me. I am very grateful to Lindsay at Penguin for sending this my way, as this is a marvellous collection of short stories by female suspense writers who were popular in the early to mid 20th century, but have now fallen largely out of favour and print. What is so intriguing about these writers is that they form a sub genre called ‘domestic suspense’, as their stories of murder and betrayal all centre around crimes committed in ordinary suburban homes by ordinary suburban people. These are not tales of mob gangsters or supernatural happenings, but explorations of the deeds normal people are capable of when their safe, everyday existence is threatened. The settings of these stories makes them even more chilling; who could imagine a murder in a spotless, checkered linoleum floored kitchen? Who could predict that a stay at home mum wearing a floral cotton dress could bludgeon someone to death? The uncanny juxtaposition of the familiar surroundings of domesticity with the horror of evil, often premeditated crime, makes these incredibly effective at unsettling the reader, and I loved the psychological complexity of these women’s writing and their ability to turn the reader’s expectations entirely on their head.

Vera Caspary’s Sugar and Spice is outstanding; it tells the story of two cousins, one beautiful and poor, one ugly and rich, and their competitive upbringing and early adulthoods. When both fall in love with the same man, there is a surprise coming that I certainly didn’t see on the horizon. Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Stranger in the Car is full of unexpected twists and turns, and is an intriguing portrayal of how far we will go to protect the reputation we hold in our social circles. I very much enjoyed Charlotte Armstrong’s The Splintered Monday; what upset me the most is that I actually sympathised with the murderer far more than anyone else! All are not equal, of course, as is always the case in short story collections. There are some that are a little weaker, with the twists failing to pack a punch. Margaret Millar’s The People Across The Canyon had me on the edge of my seat until its conclusion, which was too unreal to be truly terrifying, and Shirley Jackson’s Louisa, Please Come Home lacked plausibility, which was a shame.

However, overall, this is a superb compendium of stories that kept me up until the wee hours, desperate for more. My only real criticism is that this collection could have been twice as long. Whenever I go into my favourite book shop on the Charing Cross Road, I always see shelves and shelves of battered ‘Crime Classic’ hardbacks, usually written by women, and usually with amazing titles like ‘Black Lipstick’ and ‘A Girl Called Trouble’. Surely there must be hundreds and hundreds of stories written by these women that are worth republishing? I love suspense fiction, and I don’t read enough of it. Persephone have republished two excellent suspense novels; The Blank Wall and The Expendable Man, but I haven’t seen much else in this genre being brought back into print. Why not, I wonder? I am going to be busy searching for books by the authors in this volume over the next few months, and I’m keen to hear any suggestions people may have for other novelists like this to try. Having finally caught up on my unwatched episodes of Sherlock, I’m in the mood for mystery!

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

I hadn’t even heard of Alice Munro until a few weeks ago when a friend on my online book group suggested this as our June read. Alice Munro? Who is this woman? were my thoughts, so I googled, and found out that apparently everyone apart from me thought she was wonderful and she won the Booker International Prize in 2009. To be fair, it’s not really my fault that I had no idea who Alice Munro was, because in my English department at university if the words ‘Canadian’ or ‘American’ were placed in front of the word ‘Literature’, there were sharp intakes of breath all round and mutterings about oxymorons. So while I have dabbled in Margaret Atwood and Edith Wharton and Henry James and all the other usual suspects from across the pond, Alice Munro had slipped under my radar. And what a tragedy, because I wish that I had read everything she has ever written.

But I haven’t and so I am only able to talk about her and her work in regards to this book, which I have been reliably informed isn’t an accurate representation of her usual oeuvre. This is because it’s very biographical/autobiographical as it’s about her and previous generations of her family, but that’s not even really biography because she doesn’t actually know much about her Scottish ancestors who came over on a boat in the early 1800s.  So, she uses real people and real places and as much information as she can to construct lives and feelings and actions of people she is descended from and clearly wants to be able to bring to life again on the page. Though there necessarily has to be a fair whack of artistic licence when it comes to portraying these two hundred years dead ancestors, it doesn’t matter, because by the time you’ve started reading about them and caring about them and finding the way they lived and who they loved and the decisions they made fascinating and sad and moving, you don’t remember or even care that they’re Alice Munro’s great-great-grandparents and even though this is kind of real it’s also kind of not. It’s like Titanic, I suppose. We know someone like Rose and someone like Jack probably existed and went down with the ship, but whether they got together and yelled ‘I’m the King of the World!’ and then did some kissing on the ship’s prow doesn’t really come into it anymore by the time you’re sobbing, or shouting at Rose to stop singing and start swimming, whichever is your preference when watching this dire film.

If I could sum it up in a word, I’d say I’d found it all rather elegiac, especially the latter section of the collection, where the stories are about Alice’s grandparents, parents and herself, and so the people become accessible and there is not as much artistic licence, and the mistakes and regrets and tragedies and sheer drudgery that makes up their lives in windswept rural Canada are even more moving and absorbing. I got the sense that Munro was using this book as a way to find out more about herself, where she had come from, and where she had gone wrong. It was mournful but not depressing; these are people resigned to their lives and while aware that they could have, or should have, maybe, had more, they don’t pine for it. They get on with things. They marry, reproduce, work hard, die, and leave a trail behind them that Alice Munro has picked up and pieced together and written a remarkable string of connected stories that bring 18th and 19th century Scotland and 19th and 20th century Canada alive on the page. This book is as much about Alice Munro’s family as it is the tenacity of the human spirit throughout the ages, and it is wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that Alice Munro is directly related to James Hogg, of ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ fame; this book is terrific for understanding the predestination beliefs of hard core Scottish Presbyterians in the 18th century, many of whom Alice Munro can count as her ancestors and whom she describes in a couple of early stories. I love the attitude of ‘we’re saved, so we can do what we want’. Not quite the point Jesus had in mind, I suspect.

Anyway, I digress…read these stories, they will blow you away. I’m now determined to track down all her other stories and devour them as quickly as I can!!! You can get your own copy here.

The Devastating Boys by Elizabeth Taylor

Oh, the joys of judging books by their covers.  I bought this book for the sole reason that I really quite liked the cover, and I’d read Angel by the same author after again quite liking the cover (not the one you see if you follow the link, that one’s downright ugly), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Virago covers (the old ones, that is – the new ones tend to be horrendous and why they changed what was a perfectly lovely design to their sexy moody contemporary photography shenanigans, comme ca, is, like many things, beyond my comprehension) are wonderful things, and to be frank, even if I never read half of the Viragos I own, I wouldn’t care, because they look pretty even when they are propping things up, gathering dust and generally taking up space I don’t have. But I digress.

This blog is for reviewing books, of course, so review this book I must. The Devastating Boys is actually a collection of short stories, which I am really getting into these days, as, when one only has time to read books while on packed commuter trains/tubes, it’s very satisfying to get two whole stories read by the time you’ve made it to South Kensington via London Charing Cross. And, just to dispell any possible confusion, there are two famous Elizabeth Taylors – this one is not the same as blue eyed-National Velvet-lots of husbands and diamonds-now rather decrepit Elizabeth Taylor. Just so as you know.

Anyway, I read this while sunning myself on Lesbos, which is a ridiculously idyllic and stereotypical Greek island, and it was the perfect book to pick up and put down between the various holiday activities one does on Greek islands; namely, turning periodically while sunbathing to ensure maximum yet even tannage, eating huge amounts of icecream, and popping down to the sea for a refreshing paddle, because the stories are fairly short and you can comfortably read one in 20 minutes. The stories themselves were perfect little gems, and they traversed the whole spectrum from hilarious to charming to touching to downright shocking, which is quite a lot for one small volume to traverse by anyone’s standards. I especially enjoyed the story of ‘The Devastating Boys’, which is about an old Oxfordshire couple who have an empty nest and are in need of a little excitement in their lives. So, they decide to take two black boys from the East End in for the summer holidays, to give them an experience of country life, with hilarious and heartwarming consequences. It’s funny and touching and so well observed, and though it is only a few pages long, it was enough for the characters to really come alive off the page and leave you hungry for more. ‘The Fly Paper’ was the only story I didn’t enjoy, as, though it was equally well written as the others, it sent a nasty chill down my spine when I reached the final shocking paragraph. This is one of the best short story collections I have ever read, even better than Tea with Mr Rochester and maybe even on a par with Alice Munro and Katherine Mansfield. High praise indeed! Highly, highly, recommended. Read it now! You can buy it here.