Little, Brown £20

The Stories By Jane Gardam - book review

For much of her career, Jane Gardam has been compared to that other Jane, whose inch of ivory has proved such a resilient myth. Like Austen, Gardam is a great deal more than she may first appear,  both as a writer of short stories and as a novelist.

These collected stories – by no means all, and chosen by the author – come in the wake of Gardam being the only British writer selected for the 2014 Folio Prize, and give some measure of her range. Many have links with the Far East, especially Hong Kong, where her greatest creation, the barrister Old Filth (Failed In London Try Hong Kong) and subject of her three latest novels, gained his fortune and lost his heart. However, the huge cast which peoples her imagination includes tramps, the Little Mermaid’s seventh sister, the Green Man, ghosts and monsters. These are, above all, stories of the kind that one has almost given up hope of encountering in the 21st century – funny, affecting, beautiful and with a twist at the end that makes them powerful cocktails in the literary cabinet.

Why aren’t the magazines and news- papers which claim to champion the form, clamouring to publish them? She is easily the equal of Katharine Mansfield, Alice Munro and Helen Simpson, but strangely obscure in this country, despite winning the Costa/Whitbread prize twice, being short-listed for both the Booker and the Orange and holding the Heywood Hill Prize for a lifetime contribution to the enjoyment of literature. Perhaps it’s because she has the Austenesque quality of being satisfying and disquieting, conventional and experimental, and is much more artful than she appears. One of the stories in this collection is, in fact, about Austen. The narrator is inveigled by a grasping American academic into a pre-emptive purchase of some letters, possibly written by Austen to the mysterious man said by Cassandra Austen to have been “worthy of Jane”. Such a discovery would be sensational. Little does the academic, a much-married fortune-hunter and plagiarist, know that the letters belong, in fact, in the narrator’s own family – never opened but unmistakably authentic. She has a moral choice, respecting not only her own background but the women whom the academic has relentlessly exploited. What she does is both heart-breaking – and right.

Gardam’s style is part of her hypnotic ability to make you believe that what she tells us is true. Conversational, lucid, realist yet fantastical, she can be outrageously funny, gradually revealing her characters by what is not said, and not seen. The elderly ladies in “The Tribute”, gathering to  commemorate “poor Dench”, their former nanny, seem engaging at first, but their exploitation of a heroic servant is increasingly repulsive, right down to a tiny detail which, in the final paragraph of the story, springs back with a stinging smack to punish them. Equally haunting is “Rode By All With Pride”, a story about a Wimbledon couple who, being Oxbridge-educated and serenely certain that their only child will follow their own privileged path, get the worst news possible.

Few of Gardam’s stories let the reader off lightly. She knows the world of the educated, affluent, middle-class elite inside-out, but also outside-in, so that what seems at first to be a celebration of privilege becomes a devastating critique of selfishness, smugness and blindness. The impoverished spinster, trying to save her dilapidated church’s money by importing the Easter lilies which grow like weeds in Malta, ends up giving it a greater gift. The lonely engineer working on construction sites in the Far East has, as his “tender mistress”, the figures and drawings of his latest project, “something that will be there when we’re all dead, up and finished,” rather than the woman who offers him her body.

Some of the funniest stories remind us that the author also writes for children. The animals in “The Zoo at Christmas” speak to each other, but their conversation is far more odd than we might like to believe. The Little Mermaid, who almost persuades her dead sister’s Prince to join her under the sea, has her feminist furies stoked by experience, though her Sea King father remarks dryly: “It is a mistake to base a whole philosophy of life upon one disappointment.”

Not every story is as top-notch as these and in selecting some of her own favourites Gardam loses the satisfaction of the interlinked characters in her collection Black Faces, White Faces, as well as some of her best meditations on love and death. Yet those which are here give a flavour of her brilliance, originality and wit. She shows us that what matters in life is kindness, imagination, community and work. It’s an old message, but in the hands of one of our greatest living writers, refreshing.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
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
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.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there