The Stories by Jane Gardam, book review: These tales unfurl their meanings, like the slow blooming of a miraculous flower


The fickle, herd instinct-dominated media world needs constant reminders of greater, more lasting achievements, so it is good to have one such in the form of the selected short stories of Jane Gardam. The volume brings together 30 pieces, culled mostly from six of her seven collections published between 1980 and 2007, and also includes a few she has written for magazines, most famously "Old Filth", the story for The Oldie that became the starting point for her extraordinary trilogy, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends.

It is good, too, to be reminded that Gardam is as brilliant a short story writer as she is a novelist. The two forms are divergent, and mastery of one is in no way a guarantee of command over the other. Gardam, like Penelope Fitzgerald, knows the supreme art of what and exactly how much to leave out: this can be a productive point of entry into thinking about the short-story form. What one gets with the pages of a short story is like a little bit of illuminated ground that sets one thinking of the dark hinterlands lying behind it; absences, truncation, resonances, the invitation to imagine – these are the short story's techniques and pleasures. In one of the most devastating stories in the collection, "Rode by all with Pride", we are never allowed entry into the mind of a girl who kills herself – she appears only marginally – but we learn about it in the first line. The story will not tell you why but instead place you intimately in the world of her parents and leave you to work things out.

There are stories here like poetry: they will continue to unfurl their meanings over time, like a slow blooming of a miraculous flower. In "The Pig Boy", Veronica, all at sea amongst the colonial wives in Hong Kong while over on her first visit to her husband, suddenly finds her dislike of an alien city transforming into fascination after an almost dreamlike encounter with an infernally smelly boy transporting pigs. "Swan" ends with a similarly transformative moment when a mute seven-year-old Chinese boy, an immigrant in London, is found to have a magical empathy with swans. Gardam's reserves of compassion and sympathy for her characters, especially those at the sharp end of power, are seemingly endless. "The Tribute" is like a slap to the collective face of all the snobby colonial wives who treated their nanny as less than a human being; Gardam is all-seeing when it comes to particularly English stripes of discrimination and cruelty.

Structure is another fulcrum around which the short story turns, easily overlooked. In "Telegony", a collection of three linked stories, about a transgressive love affair in Victorian times, the suppression of that information, and the shadows it casts on the present, is a masterclass in mosaic design. The slightest touch of magic, sometimes in the form of grace, as in the heartbreaking "Easter Lilies", often brushes against Gardam's work. The whisper of redemptive uplift that she is generous enough to bring to the end of some of her stories is, above all, truthful. This is a deeply, impeccably humane and pleasurable book.

Neel Mukherjee's second novel, 'The Lives of Others' (Chatto & Windus), is out next month