At first, the creed seems a simple one: all men are bastards, and artists are the worst bastards of all: the section "Tales of Wicked Men" features several old-fashioned seducers for whom free love means free betrayal. But by then we have already met Weena, in "The End of the Line", a classic wrecker and bolter given a New Age spin, and other little sweethearts: victim or aggressor, man or woman, they are as bad as each other.
There is a lower species, though, in Weldon's world, than homo sapiens: the therapist. Echoing the preoccupations of her recent novel, a set of three stories that ends the book reserves special vitriol for the circles of hell therapists create. "Santa Claus's New Clothes", a chill tale of Christmas lunch with the new stepmother (father's therapist) in the divorced mother's place, plays on the word "civilised" - a Weldonism that, when applied to the gender wars, will always herald some truly blood-thirsty behaviour - while in "The Pardoner" Weldon shows her ability to turn a one-liner into a deeper perception. "Once we had witches, but now women are the ones who condemn, so it's the fathers' turn," quips one character, only moments before a gentle, loving, rather confused father falls victim to false-memory accusations of having abused his daughter.
Weldon has a merciless view of the human condition; there are very few chinks of light. But there is always humour in her stories, and (good for fortysomethings to hear) the wry and life-hardened smiles of middle age are often set in contrast to the po-faced enthusiasms and idiocies of youth.
Catherine StoreyReuse content