Despite the fact that Jane Gardam hit the Folio Prize shortlist earlier this year with Last Friends (I quickly bought a copy of Old Filth, the first of the trilogy that Last Friends completes, thanks to encouragement from KevinfromCanada — thanks Kevin!) and has written, with this, twenty-four books (including nine story collections), I hadn’t read anything by her before these stories. I had no idea this book was even in the offing until I noticed it on the Waterstone’s shelf.
I rather cynically assumed it was a bit of a (perfectly understandable) cash-in off the back of the Folio buzz, but I knew how highly rated Gardam was (how had I missed out on such information for so long? I’d heard the name plenty, but Gardam was just one of those authors who had somehow, in my case, fallen through the cracks over the years. And an English writer as well . . . shameful), had Kevin’s endorsement in my back pocket, and still hadn’t quite got around to Old Filth.
Here, though, was a chance to read a career-spanning short story retrospective from a pretty much unanimously revered writer I had yet to read a word of. The last time I had embarked on such a book was one of the more memorable reading experiences I’d had in years: Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.
Anyway: that’s what finally got me to start in on a Gardam book, way late, but thankful I was to finally do so. To describe reading these stories as “pleasurable,” “delightful,” “enriching,” “charming,” “funny,” and “like stepping in out of the rain, shedding sodden clothes and easing into a warm bath” would be entirely fitting and yet distinctly incomplete. These are gloriously fun tales: their supremely deft economy and unfussy refinement; the almost Wodehouse-levels of sunny addictiveness and lucid propulsiveness; the elegant ease with which Gardam rolls you through another strange but familiar tale. For those and many further reasons, these are stories deserving of serious attention.
So, over the coming weeks I’ll be going through each of the 28 tales (one a three-parter), hopefully at least partly in conjunction with your Mookse and the Gripes host Trevor, the ultimate aim of which is to prompt at least one or two readers to try this exceptional author quite a bit quicker than I did. (The covers don’t necessarily help, can I tentatively suggest, at least the UK ones. This is a writer of, I would happily suggest, a considerably higher calibre than those bearing similar cover art . . . a strange but enduring problem in the UK, less so in the US and Canada on the whole.)
First up: “Hetty Sleeping,” from 1977, a perfect introduction to the collection and to the writer (for me): a tale that manages, in 20 pages, to consider themes that will become familiar occupations throughout the collection: the gaps between people, both perceived and actual, and how we misrepresent both others and ourselves; the imagined versus the real and where amidst those memory abides; the passing of time and ageing; guilt; the flimsy nature of identity; fraudulence, both necessary and unwitting. I’ll look at the story with some of those ideas, in particular, in mind next time out.