Good writing produces a sound that goes on resonating in your memory after you have shut the book. The music of Rose Tremain's narratives is as definite as small hammer blows, advancing through short sentences, statements of fact: 'All around the pastry board were crumbs of wax and used matches. Mercedes tried to sweep them into her hand and throw them in the sink. She felt dizzy after her sleep on the table. She staggered about like a drunk. She knew she'd been having beautiful dreams. When she opened her door, she saw a man standing there. He wore a beige mackintosh and a yellow scarf. Underneath the mackintosh, his body looked bulky. He wore round glasses. He said: 'Mercedes?' She put a hand up to her red burning cheek. She blinked at him.'
Those short, sharp, uncomplicated sentences set up a rhythm of certainty, like a hand beating a drum. They work, in a beautifully ironic way, against the drift of the story, which suggests that loss and uncertainty is all there is, that chaos rules, that a lump of wax may be a human heart, that a lit votive candle may be 'the voice of a lover, the candle is a catch of mackerel, the candle is a drench of rain, a garden of marrows, a neon sign, a year of breath . . .'
Mercedes, the protagonist of 'The Candle Maker', finally learns to trust in change as she learns to trust in her own capacity for forgiveness. Named after Our Lady of Mercy, she finally draws back from witchy revenge, from the magic women perform in kitchens: 'she put Louis Cabrini's waxen heart into the rounded saucepan and melted it down and turned it back into votive candles'. The story, ostensibly set in Corsica, conveys less the reality of that particular culture than the way that 'Corsica' functions to indicate the savage and romantic recesses of the human heart. Catholicism, with its sensual appeal, its invocation of gods and goddesses under the guise of saints, is crucial to it. Here, magical realism meets the Church, a fine field for Tremain to play in.
The confidence and simplicity of her language emerge in other ways. She's very good on detail, letting a little stand for a lot. In 'Two of Them' the puzzled boy narrator struggles with a mother who is swiftly sketched in as reading Country Life and drinking Gin and It and crying into a bag of chestnuts. 'Ice Dancing' revolves around a husband whose 'Revlon girl' of a wife has escaped the Soviet chill of multiple weddings seen on a tourist trip to Moscow, where 'the brides were wearing thin dresses of white net and carrying blood-red bouquets', only to succumb to a frightening and nameless disease that robs her of personality and returns her to somewhere non-human, submerged under the ice of the title.
The herald who is the hero of 'The crossing of Herald Mountjoy' displays his sensitivity by his capacity to notice, in the middle of bloody war, in a pause between hostilities, how the morning is 'salt-white with frost'. The lovely image then suggests Mountjoy's state of mind as well as the theme: 'The land he must cross has been ploughed and he's worried that the horse is going to stumble on the icy ridges of earth. A mist hangs on the fields, milky and dense, and the herald wishes that this, too, wasn't there. This and the hard frost give the day such strange singularity.'
Reading these stories I was reminded of Flaubert's stern dictum that the author must remove himself or herself from the text, and his simultaneous confession: Madame Bovary, c'est moi. Leaving aside this delicious picture of the great don in corsets and bustle, it's fascinating to see how Rose Tremain dissolves her own presence, her own identity inflected by class and gender, into these fictions which dance forth announcing their Americanness, their Italianness, their boyishness, their maleness, in a dazzling parade of disguises. Rarely does she employ a female narrative voice speaking from somewhere recognisably English.
The effect of this is to make one admire her cleverness, her ingenuity and range, while occasionally feeling kept at some distance emotionally. Her male characters emerge in close- up as a vulnerable, tender, thoughtful and kindly lot, sometimes constrained by idiotic cultural rules to behave coldly or cruelly. What redeems them, when this happens, is Tremain's clear-eyed intelligence and compassion, especially for the young. A hero, in these stories, is someone who has desires and goes on quests. These are themes which in her hands transcend history and geography.