2010, 262 p.
My face-to-face bookgroup has a bit of a Christmas tradition, whereby each of us lends a copy of a book that we have enjoyed from our own bookshelves to another bookgroup member. It’s a Kris Kringle-y sort of arrangement because you don’t know who donated the book you receive, and you can’t tell where your book is going to end up. At our February meeting, the first for the year, we talk about the book and try to guess who chose it for us. It is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair: sometimes you receive a book you’ve already read; sometimes you loathe the book you’ve received and wonder how you’ve managed to sit all year talking about books with the woman who chose it; other times you give a much-loved book (as I did with Kristin Lavrensdatter), only to have it trashed!
February is coming on quickly, so I thought that I’d better get stuck into my ‘present’. Aphrodite’s Hat, I see, by Salley Vickers. I’ve read two of her books, with wildly different responses. First I read Miss Garnet’s Angel with an online bookgroup and just loved it. My response to it was complicated by one of the bookgroup members arguing strongly and fairly (but not completely convincingly) that there was a whole other reading of the book possible that turned the plot on its head. To this day, I’m still not sure. When Instances of the Number Three came out, I snapped it up but this time felt that it was twee, repetitive and just plain silly.
But ten years have gone by, and I’m now well and truly of the middle-aged demographic that she writes about. And, despite my frequent declarations that I don’t like short stories, I was quite happy to see that the book was in fact a collection of her short fiction. I’m finding myself happy to read something light and put-downable just before I go to sleep.
The longest story in this collection is ‘The Buried Life’, after the Matthew Arnold poem of the same name, which she very helpfully gives at the end of the story (just as the cover of the book helpfully shows ‘Aphrodite’s Hat’ which is the title and theme of another of the stories in this collection). It’s a beautiful poem: this is one part:
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to enquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us- to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
This captures the themes of many of these stories: middle aged people -generally women- often in their second marriages, who are disappointed that this second chance at love has not worked either; unhappy people teetering on the edge of infidelity; loss of a child through death or intransigence. They are very still stories that seem calm on the surface but cover a deep well of sadness. As with Miss Garnet’s Angel, there is a hint of the supernatural but it is so closely interwoven with love and longing that it pushed my derision to the side. Many of the stories are set in England, with visits over to Rome or Venice for honeymoons and naughty weekends away, in the twentieth century tawdry version of the Grand Tour- again, shades of Miss Garnet’s Angel. Most of the stories are very short, with a similar narrative voice, and often even start the same way with a voiced comment in a conversation. They are very similar to each other, but I enjoyed each one so much that I found myself wanting more and happily turned to the next.
As I said, February approaches, and not only do we talk about our Christmas gift book at our meeting, but we also have our February selection- in this case, a collection of – you guessed it- short stories by Z. Z. Packer. Somehow, I couldn’t bear to mix up my reading of these two very different authors. I wanted to let the quiet, middle-aged, introspectivity of Vickers’ stories have their own space, without being swamped by a younger, more rambunctious writer.
It doesn’t surprise me that, according to Wikipedia, Salley Vickers is a 64 year old woman, or that she is a psychotherapist, and that she has had two marriages, both finished. I suspect that there is an autobiographical bent to these stories, and perhaps my criticisms of Instances of the Number Three could well apply to these stories as well. Except that I am older, except that there is a clarity about human nature, except that I was utterly charmed by them.
My rating: 8.5/10
Sourced from: Who knows??
Read because: it was a reading gift over Christmas from my bookgroup.