The Darkness of Wallis Simpson by Rose Tremain

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The Independent Culture

The title story of this collection concerns Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American socialite for whom Edward VIII abdicated in 1936. But it also concerns the nature of memory, and the urgent, sometimes salacious, demands of storytelling. Wallis lies dying in her Paris flat. A mysterious lawyer has imprisoned her, and urges her to "remember" every detail of her last marriage. This vulture-like "man-woman" hovers over her, "kissing her one minute, hitting her the next". What is so compelling here is the way Tremain conveys the provocative selectiveness of forgetting.

This is a Southern belle, it seems, who never reconciled herself to sex with a man, who preferred to focus on "buying candles in Harrods", and if she can't recall the "dull little man" who gave her jewels and caviar, she never forgets her manners. Some things, the traumas of her formative life and her training in self-denial, go too deep to be forgotten. In Wallis's mind, Tremain shows, they blot out the inconsequential facts of her life. Her story, ultimately, is her own, and the voice Tremain gives her is poignant in its derangement and sharp in its indignation.

Tremain is restless in her exploration of voices. A bewildered East German border guard, redundant after the fall of the Berlin Wall, sets out for Russia on his bicycle. Unable to adapt to new realities, as the West creeps eastwards, lighting cities a lurid orange, he finds that "darkness and quiet were leaving the world". He wants to recapture that silence. And, in a sense he does, as the freezing wastes of Poland lay claim to him. Similarly, a bourgeois husband picnicking with his family, as painted by Tissot, escapes from the frame of his life, bound for an exotic Parisienne. Both men (and there are lots of men who "leave" in these stories) are frozen, arrested, caught short by their desires.

Then there are the women with no children who adopt children with no mothers. These are stories of unremittingly uneventful lives, encompassing a dizzying range of dysfunctionality - feckless trailer trash in Knoxville, Tennessee, insanity and disapproval in an eerie English village.

The last story, "Peerless", is possibly the most touching. Broderick Newbold is retired and slightly depressed. One day, he spots an ad from a local animal shelter, asking him to adopt a penguin, which has the same name as a long-lost schoolfriend. Keatsian memories of lost youth re-surface. But he finds his new friend lying disconsolate in a warm pool, longing for the chill of icy waters. Tremain has not used ice as a metaphor for new life previously but here, it becomes just that. And, if she chooses settings that are invitingly diverse, her characters share a compelling feature. They are undergoing transformations that will change their view of their various worlds irrevocably.