Friday 30 January 2015

The challenge – 13 short stories in 13 days – No. 9 and 10

The American Lover


Rose Tremain

Story 9 – Smithy

A sensitive and tender tale of the last days of Reginald Smith, a man who through his working life had planted trees along the motorway verges and who now in his 80s is self appointed custodian of Blackthorn End lane.

He takes his daily walk along the lane, enjoying the solitude of the countryside, and picking up the debris of others, their “chocolate wrappers, lager cans, cigarette stubs, plastic bottles and carrier bags. Condoms.” until one day he finds there a fusty smelling ripped purple mattress with “the stench of human dreams”. Its presence appals him.

His sense of civic duty propels him to contact the landowner to remove it but the farmer wants to leave it to the Spring when it will be dry and can be burnt. He feels he alone has to take responsibility for this atrocity “out of affection (for the place) and because he preferred things to be orderly and clean, he tried to keep it litter-free”

A story about duty and responsibility, but also about how at the end things from the beginning come back to one’s mind.

Story 10 BlackBerry Winter

A two layer story which I am beginning to think is quite typical of Tremain. Nearing Christmas Londoner Fran returns to her mother Peggy’s house in the wood complete with happy childhood memories, still cold with little heating and now with her mother incapacitated with a broken arm. As they settle down for a good nights sleep a huge storm rages outside, the power goes off and woodland debris is deposited in Peggy’s garden by the flooding river. Neighbour, Thomas, who would normally have helped out with such heavy work has decided the storm has spoken to him and he is now too old for such activities. This is the “Winter” of the title

The other thread to the story, the “BlackBerry” of the title, is the email conversation between Fran and her married lover David. This storyline also has a storm which is decisive about their future.

ashramblings verdict - I loved the dual structure of Blackberry Winter, in much the same way as I liked the duality in story number 8 “The Housekeeper” . A clever technique.

Thursday 29 January 2015

The challenge – 13 short stories in 13 days – No. 7 and 8

The American Lover


Rose Tremain

Story 7 – Juliette GrĂ©co’s Black Dress

This deceptively straightforward little story has two girls,  Phoebe and Karen, who work in a beautician’s shop, share the story of Phoebe’s mum, Julie, over their lunch break.

Julie had gone to art school in Paris in the late 1950s, was enraptured by la Muse de l'existentialisme, the singer, Juliette Greco, spent her money on the same “little black dress”, fell for and was seduced by her art teacher a “philandering French fool with a dirty floor” according to her own mother and returned home to Epsom despondent. Within six months she had married the beautician’s father and “Nothing more has ever happened to her”. 

It is the little things that make this story – the black dress getting torn (we never know how, but can perhaps imagine), the contrasting sense of style between the tartan skirt, M&S twinset and demi-wave permed hair of Julie’s departure from England and the almost beatnik look of the matelot jerseys, tapering trousers, log straight locks, the inevitable Gualoises cigarettes and the ending - no spoiler, but the final scene is the perfect ending in my opinion. Loved it!

Story 8 – The Housekeeper

Tremain surpasses herself in this story imagining a passionate affair between Daphne Du Maurier and Mrs Danowski, a housekeeper to Lord de Withers of Manderville Hall. After Du Maurier has ended the affair for fear of being discovered as a bisexual in the 1930s, Mrs Danowski is horrified to discover that she has become transformed into the evil Mrs Danvers of the writer’s masterpiece, Rebecca.  I  loved the way she mirrored back the imagery in Rebecca to become the reality in her story with Manderley becoming Manderville Hall, de Winter becoming de Withers, Mrs Danvers becoming Mrs Danowski  and using the same boathouse as the lover’s meeting place , the same preserved West Wing as the untouched memorial to the past. The sense of betrayal felt by the housekeeper is immense, first by the non return of her lover which drives her out of service at the Hall and then by the revelation upon reading the novel that there was no “coded message” for her in its pages instead she had been the inspiration for something as evil as Mrs Danvers.

A fantastic fictional backdrop story to a much loved novel and its writer.

ashramblings verdict Simply a class act!

Monday 26 January 2015

The challenge – 13 short stories in 13 days – No. 5 and 6

The American Lover


Rose Tremain

Story 5 – A View of lake Superior in the Fall

Wow this woman can write. Her stories raise emotions in me! Disappointment and loss figure once more in this story, but their is also redemptive moments and some tender affect in the aspects of the love story between recently retired couple, Walter and Lena Parker.

Having an “On Golden Pond” moment Walter and Lena escape their Nashville home, the southern heat and hole up in a Canadian cabin through the summer and winter, intending to stay forever, what ever that ends up meaning. They buy a boat, build a jetty, install a wood burner and settle into their new life, their escape from their wayward, at sea, daughter who has returned to the family home to try and make it in the music business at the Grand Old Oprey. Her attempts to do this have only resulted in troupes of rowdy artists invading Walter and Lena’s home, drinking, smoking pot, feasting on and emptying their refrigerator and vomiting in the corners of the room. Finding their supposedly unconditional parental love for their child tested beyond their endurance by their daughter’s behaviour and their disappointment for her underachievement, her never finishing anything, never seeing anything through – be it her music and hope of being a singer, be it her lesbian love affair and the hope of being a mother, or her hopes  of becoming a novelist or management consultant or marrying a famous conductor. Walter and Lena run away. They find solace in the beauty and solitude of their wilderness cabin.

I won’t give away the ending, but it is an emotionally charged one to which Tremain builds ever so gently, ever so subtly, turning on its head the more usual child-running-away storyline, turning a summer hideaway into a year round sanctuary. This is a beautiful story of mature love, exile, and of the devastating impact of an overbearing family member.

Story 6 – Man in the Water

Of the six stories so far, the second, forth and sixth stories have been shorter and just like Story 2 Captive, this story ends abruptly. perhaps not where many readers, or writers would have ended it, but at a point where the future or a more traditional ending, although partially apparent is not defined.

The voice of this story is that of an unnamed fisherman, owner of the boat the Mary Jane, who fishes off the eastern seaboard out of Yarmouth. Tremain credits Norwich School painter Joseph Stannard (1797-1830) painting “ Yarmouth Beach and Jetty” as the source of her inspiration for this story.

Our fisherman is a widower, with two very different children  - a boy  who is bored at school, thirsty for adventure and all things bloodthirsty and an older girl who has taken up his late wife’s role as housekeeper. He is aware of his daughter staring out their window in a dream like fashion, but is less aware of the issues with his son. The story tells of his attempts to understand the girl, his fears of loosing her to another man and another life whilst trying to prepare himself for that happening by trying to learn the housewifery tasks he will require to keep him and his son fed and well turned out when his daughter marries. But is he correct in his interpretations of her state of reverie he observed when she is ironing or baking? We never know, except that in the end we believe the daughter is truthful when he asks about her feelings for a potential suitor just as she was the day she saw a man drowning in the sea even though the fisherman could not find him when he took his boat out on a vicious tide to look. Yes the fisherman can read the tides, but is less able to read people.

ashramblings verdict – I know Tremain lives fairly locally to me, near Norwich in the UK, but when she does write about other locations I do find them realistic and am immediately transposed there, be it the Canadian lakeshore of Story 5 or the Russian countryside of Story 3.

Saturday 24 January 2015

The challenge – 13 short stories in 13 days – No. 3 and 4

The American Lover


Rose Tremain

Story 3 – The Jester of Astapovo

From the Norfolk winter of story 2 we are transposed to a Russian winter in remote Astapovo  in Tremain’s working of the final days of Leo Tolstoy.

Her version of the story begins with Ivan, the station master at Astropovo,  failing in his attempt at a love affair with older Tanya Trepova to escape his marriage to a wife, Anna,  who never laughs at his jokes. He hides this from his wife who thinks he has been on an unsuccessful “mushroom-picking” trip. As he and Dmitri, the telegraph master,  sit drinking and philosophising over many a vodka, Ivan lists the various ways to escape their meaningless existence - “..the second is through religion….a condition of marvelousness attends you when you die.” I loved the humour Tremain  injects her characters as Dmitri replies “…What’s that? D’you mean the kind of feeling one gets after five or six vodkas?”

Escape comes when the world and Tolstoy’s wife descend on Astropovo following Tolstoy’s forced disembarkation at Ivan’s station through illness. Again Tremain captures the farce like qualities of the situation. Tolstoy is in the process of leaving his wife, and is forced to take up residence in Ivan’s house where he ultimately dies from pneumonia. Tolstoy’s plea of “Escape…I must escape…” transforms Ivan from a meaningless humble station master and thrust him into the spotlight to fulfil his destiny as the guardian of the final wish of the Russian hero, allowing no one to get past him to Tolstoy until the end. Once death has come the family and media entourage leaves Astapovo and inevitably Ivan heads of for a vodka or two wit h Dmitri and contemplates the events and his role in them for which he feels proud, forever changed but unchanged by the momentous historical events in which he has played a central role - “History itself had come to them and taken up residence with them for a while and was now abandoning them”.  In a mockery of the role of the telegraph in keeping Tolstoy’s family, the Russian people and the world aware of the Tolstoy’s predicament and deteriorating health, Tremain has Ivan’s wife send him a telegram announcing that she has left him to start a flower shop .

It is always difficult to work new life into a true story but Tremain does it deftly building both the character of Ivan and his situation, his sense of duty, of normality amidst the chaos that ensues. I do however feel the ending is slightly ambiguous – does his “The time for mushroom picking….has come” final sentences indicate a resigned return to his “meaningless” existence of a life pre-Tolstoy or a ray of hope for more amorous adventures ahead with Tanya or someone else? Somehow I think the previous life looms large on the horizon for Ivan and I can see him and Dmitri growing old together drinking their vodkas.

Story 4 – Extra geography

Jolly hockey sticks! Or in this case Lacrose sticks. Two school girls play at falling in love and decide to do so with the next person they see which turns out to be their New Zealand geography mistress Miss Delavigne. Swotting up on all things Kiwi their wangle an invite to tea where a transgression occurs. It has an impact on all three lives – the obvious banishment of the teacher, but which of the two girls is most affected? Minna who the rebels and says she is now grown up and shows off a picture of her summer boyfriend Jermey, or the narrator  who nicknames the now unoccupied teacher’s house with its broken window and flaking pain, Desolation creek after a place spotted on their NZ map search.

Again a story of the impact of loss.

ashramblings verdict – So far in this collection Tremain’s main characters have been trapped by their loyalties, desires and memories in situations they have no control of.

Friday 23 January 2015

The challenge – 13 short stories in 13 days – No. 1 and 2

The American Lover
Rose Tremain
I have set myself the challenge of reading one story a day from this collection for the next 13 days. Here goes!
Story 1 – The American Lover
Convalescing 60s wild child author confides her own true story to Portuguese housemaid during a power outage in England of the mid 1970s over a picture of her red E-type Jaguar in which she had smashed up her legs.  Her one novel is a steamy carbon copy of her own earlier youthful transgressive love affair with her older, deadbeat photographer of an “American Lover”, a act of rehabilitation by its one hit wonder writer. But she is struggling with both her emotional rehab after the affair and her physical rehab after her car crash. The story reminds me of an twisted round, inverted version of the old Cary Grant – Deborah Carr movie, An Affair to Remember and, not spoiling this one, I loved the ending.  It is a beautifully written story of the lasting impact of disappointment.
Story 2 – Captive
Her second story will make dog lovers everywhere will weep their hearts out and again it is a fine piece of short story writing. Unmarried, middle aged, dog lover Owen Gibb had to sell the family farm in Norfolk after his parents death and has started a dog kennel business much to the disgruntlement of his farms new owners and now neighbours.  He builds a pooch pad par excellence, with underground heating, lots of exercise space and business booms. Then an exceptionally cold winter strikes giving the new neighbours an opportunity to scuttle his success. As he discovers their audacity and alone tries to do whatever is necessary to save the dogs and defy their criminal actions.  The reader really feels for this man whose passion and love for dogs overtakes even his own wellbeing.
ashramblings verdict – great start to this collection

Tuesday 20 January 2015

The Nigerian predicament in a nutshell

Every Day is for the Thief


Teju Cole

According to Duncan White’s review of this book in the Telegraph, in January 2006 when Teju Cole returned to New York from his first trip home to  Lagos in 13 years, he wrote about it in 30 blog posts in 30 days. The result, a fictionalised mixture of memoir and reportage, was made into this his first book which was republished in 2014. I had not realised this until after I read the book but his writing had come across to me as so real and personal that I had to check whether it was an autobiographical account or not.

One of the two quotes at the front of the novel is the Yoruba proverb Ojo gbogbo ni t'olw, ojo kan ni t'olohun Every day is for the thief, but one day is for the owner. His descriptions of the "graft" or bribe system are very familiar to me having lived in Abuja through 2012-13 from the soft to the more forceful examples of this form of social lubrication in action and how its continued existence perpetuates the patronage society, easing passage and maintaining hierarchies in government, business and every day life, from him getting his passport renewed at the Nigerian Consulate offices in New York, to witnessing 419 scammers  of advance fee fraud - the yahoo-yahoo boys in action in the internet cafes of Lagos, to the hiking up of petrol prices at those pumps which have it to sell, to the copy shops selling copies of CDs, to policemen and unofficial toll booths operatives with their AK47s stopping motorists for on the spot fines and tolls. His account covers so much of what I recall from my experience in Nigeria from the day to day existence, the power outages, the continual multiple generator noise, its tribalism, its poor education system exemplified in his account by the story of the well respected boarding school teaching its students that a humanist is someone who does not believe in God.  I am glad to say I never witnessed the fatal frenzy of a market attack and necklace killing of a 11 year old thief, nor had to talk down a violent request for money and we never had our house broken into albeit that our gate-boy and our neighbours were attacked and locked in the gatehouse as armed robbers stormed our neighbourhood. 

Cole had clearly wondered whether he could return to Nigeria and write there, seeing it as a treasure trove of characters and stories but was also depressed by its stifling of the creative juices. Even where he found emerging creatives such as MUSON Centre he found, at least in 2006, that lessons with “oyinbo” teachers were more costly than those with African teachers and students were expected to own their instrument of choice. Whether this has changed I cannot say but his futile search for literature books in the Lagos bookshops was by 2012 much altered at least in Abuja with Cassava Republic, albeit that the cost of books (e.g. 800 – 1500 Naira for a paperback novel)  would still be prohibitive to many an ordinary Nigerian.

Cole’s conclusion that “tokunbo” (foreign imports”") + “idea l’a need” (the concept of just doing enough to get by, to make do) + corruption is what limits Nigeria, what stifles Nigerian creativity I can relate to. The country does not make, it imports; it does not foster ways of thinking which lead to the development of the things it imports; and does not engender in its people attitude of attention to detail needed for an enquiring and investigative engagement to the creative and scientific spirit behind what the things used. Spot on Mr Cole!

ashramblings verdict 5* I have to give this book 5* as a second to none best introduction to the Niaja predicament – no solutions but a clear picture.

Monday 19 January 2015

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others


Neel Mukherjee

This novel was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. It is an impressive novel set in the period 1966-70 in Bengal, India with 2012 epilogue.

The Ghoshes are a middle class family of paper mill owners. Three generations live in one house, the social hierarchy of the family manifesting itself in the physical structure of the house. Prafullanath and his wife Charbulala are the grandparents and are top of the tree, Adinath and Sandhya, Pritonath and Purima, Rholanath and Jayanti, and all their children all live in the house along with unmarried middle sister Chhaya and Purba, widow of their youngest son, Somnath. Purba and her children are at the bottom of the pecking order within the household are survive on hand-me-downs of clothing and food,being treated more like servants. The family’s story is one of all the usual family things - births, deaths, marriages, illness, love, rivalry, envy, decisions, arguments etc – all give adequate opportunity for Mukherjee to paint a detailed picture of its complex set of relationships and characters, their stories, feelings and circumstances and he does this really very well. The book has a very helpful Glossary and Note explaining Indian conventions for names and relationships.  Interspersed between the chapters of the family saga runt he chapters which are letters written by Adinath’s eldest son Supratik who has left home, and unbeknown to his family has become a Naxalite, joining the CPIM (Marxist Communist Party of India). Mukherjee works his family saga in two threads – the story of Supratik and the story of the other members of the family – knotting them together in its devastating concluding few chapters.

When I began reading this novel,nothing prepared me for the opening prologue with its story of Nitai Das, not even my own knowledge of Indian history nor having lived in the adjacent state of Orissa for 2 years. Do  not be put off by the emotional power of its subject matter. It sets an uncomfortable yet vital backdrop for the rest of the book and for understanding the route Supratik chooses. To Mukherjee’s credit his writing in both halves of the story is exquisite, he clearly understands both worlds and conveys to the reader what happens when the worlds of the well heeled business class, the landlord class, and the day labourers collide.   His discussion of the reasons for the Naxalite insurgency – land theft, worker exploitation, famine - which continue to this day in the eastern states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bihar and Bengal, are well voiced by the author, as is the precarious predicament of those who are only just slightly better off then the landless poor when economic failure or political upheaval shifts their delicate balance between comfort and destitution. Not everyone in the family gets a happy ending and the story is all the better for this realism. It is by far the best book I have read for a long time.

ashramblings verdict 5* a masterful family saga. A must read for anyone interested in India.

War Child

I remember how I first saw her. Silently cowering in the corner, amongst the rubble. Her straggly hair, her dirty face, her dusty clothes – perfect concrete grey camouflage. Knees to chest, hugging that grubby, tattered remnant of a Disney comfort blanket. Its saliva sodden corner clasped fast in her mouth by those tiny, tiny trembling hands. Her brown eyes peered out over them, chancing a fox-like gaze through lush lashes my nieces pay a fortune for every weekend. But her eyes were not the bright eyes of joyous youth, full of hope for the future: they were dull and sullen, sunk deep into blackened, soul less sockets, cavernous fissures onto a fractured troubled mind. Unable to comprehend what the world had become; unable to recall what it had been.

© Sheila Ash

Sunday 18 January 2015



This term’s Creative Writing Group theme is one of concealment.


Siren wailing

Tyres screeching

Shouting, knocking

The sound of a door breaking.


Policemen guarding

Ambulance arriving

Bodies departing

House curtains closed as always.