The Darkness Of Wallis Simpson by Rose Tremain

Modernist fairy tales of motherless children and childless mothers
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The Independent Culture

Some short stories are like bad comedy sketches: exercises in filling time until the punch-line. Some are like poetry: full and dense and teeming with stuff. Here, Rose Tremain's are like fairy tales. They inhabit faraway lands, full of snow and strange quests.

Like fairy tales, Tremain's stories are filled with motherless children and childless mothers. There are trains and transience, offhand brutality and meaningless death. Characters live (and die) in places they don't belong, on impossible journeys towards happiness or God.

The stories are full of blunt, modernist non-sequiturs, and begin with the almost-comical frankness of Hans Christian Andersen. "Hector S was 28 and he'd only slept with one girl," is how "The Beauty of the Dawn Shift" starts, then: "This one girl was his sister, Ute. Ute kept a pet swan in a lean-to hutch on the apartment estate. She'd named it Karl and fed it on sunflower seeds. Morning and evening, she'd let it out to peck the grass and it allowed her to stroke its neck."

The title story is a beautiful example of how this fairy-tale language works within the newspaper-real context of a story that we think we know. In Tremain's version, Wallis Simpson is dying in a room in Paris, tended by a sadistic lawyer who beats and cajoles her into remembering her place in history. She feels "trapped inside an old TV, a ghost made out of light". It is Wallis's transience in the world that is so touchingly rendered by Tremain's spare prose.

People are almost transparent, and the intense, fleshly descriptions are for objects only: a rare lemon in "The Beauty of the Dawn Shift", or Wallis's treasure box of jewellery: "Rubies bright as blood ... kept from spilling by the hard bandage of diamonds," she remembers, and a bracelet "better than the caress of a person you love".

Curiously, the language works better in modern contexts than it does in some of the more mystical stories - such as "Nativity Story", or "Moth", about a baby who sprouts wings and flies. It is the combination of the weird and the everyday that makes them so unusual.

Two of the most brilliant and tender stories are "How it Stacks Up" and "Peerless": each about the life, in just a few pages, of a tired old man. It is pointless to cite parts of these stories in explanation because the stories are each perfect things, every word necessary and in place. Exactly as short stories ought to be.