Extraordinary women, hostile men

MONSIEUR SHOUSHANA'S LEMON TREES by Patricia Duncker Serpent's Tail pounds 9.99

Monsieur Shoushana thinks about his lemon trees in a garden in Nice while war breaks out abroad and panic-buying begins in France. Late at night, he sits out on his terrace and watches the lemons gleam in the dark - the first of many images in Patricia Duncker's short stories, in which nature provides a vivid backdrop to scenes of human conflict, a gorgeous setting for the passions which drive her characters to wild extremes of behaviour.

Born in the West Indies, now a lecturer at the University of Wales, she lives part of the year in France and the impact of its countryside is evident in this collection. In "The Crew from M6", for instance, the beauty of the landscape seems to collude with the forces which gather to destroy a TV director who has broken his promise to a group of women he has just filmed; it is a lesbian ghost story with a deceptively bucolic atmosphere.

In "Betrayal", a woman invites her ex-lovers to dinner with predictable results, igniting jealous feelings which lead to a destructive act of revenge. In "Death Before Dishonour", a woman who is revolted by her husband uses her own body as the site of her dramatic rejection of him. In "The Glass Porch", a runaway wife who becomes trapped in the porch of her own home unleashes a pent-up fury which turns her husband into a latter-day St Sebastian.

Indeed throughout the collection the relations between men and women are so mutually hostile that the lesbian characters in "The Crew From M6" simply seem to be spelling out its politics when they complain that "women don't rule the world. Men do". In that sense, these stories are curiously old-fashioned, fighting familiar battles and trying to translate them into effective fiction. What this means is that the women in the stories, from the impossibly stylish women who run a bar in "Betrayal" to the obese narrator of "The Arrival Matters", the novella which closes the collection, have to be extraordinary.

Yet while their rages and their frustrations are immense, Duncker fails to convey a sense of what they are like outside these eidetic and epiphanic moments. They are defined by their anger, their jealousy, even their visual idiosyncrasies, to a point where it is hard to imagine their existence beyond the confines of her highly melodramatic plots. Significantly, the one story which is entirely about men, "The Storm", creates a wholly unbelievable totalitarian state, a cod-mediaeval monastery which employs the mind- control methods of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a way that suggests a genuine perplexity on Duncker's part when she has to try and imagine people going through the motions of everyday life.

This does not come as a complete surprise, even though her first novel, Hallucinating Foucault, received enthusiastic reviews and won the Dillon's First Fiction Award for 1996. That book simultaneously revealed Duncker's sly cleverness with plot and a kind of authorial coldness which kept the characters at arm's length from the reader. Conveying a powerful sense of is own perfection, it was very much a novel to admire, not a piece of fiction to become passionately involved in; the same is true, no matter how great their technical competence, of the stories in Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees. The fictional equivalent of a firework display, their effect is spectacular but short-lived, leaving this reader at least in a state of longing for something messier but more deeply felt.

"[Citrus fruits] add grace notes of cheerfulness and sparkle to the rich complexities of a composition, be it banquet or altarpiece." Gillian Riley provides historical recipes inspired by paintings in the National Gallery in A Feast for the Eyes (National Gallery Publications pounds 14.95, publ 26 September). There's Hogarth's shrimp butter , Provencal fruit compote (with a nod to Cezanne) and Canaletto's Squid and Peas. Left: a detail from Gerolamo dai Libri's "The Virgin and Child with St Anne".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border