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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas