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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style