Thursday, February 26, 2015

Story Time

It's always nice to have someone read to you, especially when it's a writer you admire. The special treat of The New Yorker:Fiction podcast is that the reader, a New Yorker fiction writer, chooses a story that was published in the magazine and that he or she particularly admires. After the reading, the writer and fiction editor Deborah Treisman discuss the story and its author. Sometimes I know the author well; I may even remember having read the story. But at other times it's a revelation.

That's what happened in January when Joseph O'Neill, who wrote the wonderful novel Netherland, read Muriel Spark's short story “The Ormolu Clock”, originally published in the New Yorker in 1960. The story was terrific and O'Neill's admiration for her technique and her 'nastiness' made me enjoy it even more. Spark is best known for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, but I wanted to try one of her less known works, so I settled on The Girls of Slender Means.

The 'girls' are living in London in the spring of 1945 in an Edwardian mansion called the May of Teck Club, which “exists for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means”. Somehow Spark manages to make this large cast of women of different ages, experience and ambitions into fully realized characters, as they were in 1945 and as they are when she revisits them many years later. In the early chapters the tone is light and droll, as when she describes one resident: “she lolled in the distinct attitude of being the only woman present who could afford to loll”. But she subtly weaves a darker thread into the story, and a tragedy ultimately colors many of their lives.

I'm not sure I liked this book as much as I liked the short story on the podcast, but may that's because I like being read to by an Irishman.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Household Help

At first it seems to be a story revealing the changes in society in post World War I London of 1922. Frances Wray and her mother, once part of a genteel family living in an elegant Edwardian home, are forced to dismiss their servants, do their own cooking and housework (actually Frances does it all – her mother can't even boil water), and rent out their upper floor to married couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, The Paying Guests of Sarah Waters's novel. The Barbers are roughly the same age as Frances, but from a lower social class. Lilian's flapperish style - kimonos, paper flowers, feathers, beads and tambourines – is a striking contrast to Frances's staid and sober demeanor, although it is gradually revealed that she too led a more bohemian life before her family's reversals forced her back home to her mother.

So would this book be a nuanced examination of the clash of social classes? Decidely not. What starts as character study turns into an action-filled, high tension page-turner which is at once dark, shocking and occasionally comic. I hate spoilers so I'll say no more. Sarah Waters tells a tale that feels totally authentic to its time period but bracingly contemporary.