The publicity surrounding Angelica Garnett's new book has concentrated on her Bloomsbury pedigree as the daughter of Vanessa Bell, and the niece of Virginia Woolf. Yet these avowedly autobiographical stories should stand on their own merit without knowledge of those old triangular love affairs, London squares, and privileged circles. So do these four pieces succeed as stories?
By and large, yes, and most beautifully in "When All The Leaves Were Green, My Love". Bettina lives in the plain, ordered world ruled over by her Nanny, and also in the rich and confusing adult world of her parents and their friends. The straightforward commands of the nursery do not prepare Bettina for the subtlety and ambiguity of conversation in the drawing room.
That conversation is Bettina's confusing introduction to irony, that besetting sin of the upper-class English, where every sentence has "a lick at the end like a cat's tongue". Nothing said or done is quite as it seems on the surface.
As she grows towards adolescence, Bettina discovers that she is the child of Jamie, her mother's lover. She finds the first young man she loves in bed with another girl. She flees from her mother's overwhelming presence into the robust company of her two beloved older brothers, but that ends forever with the death of one in the Spanish Civil War.
The themes of human duplicity and guilt are pursued in the novella, "Aurore". It begins just before the Second World War and traces the life of the narrator, Agnes, from youth to old age. She is sent to Paris at 16 to improve her French with Julianna and Gilles, two artists, and they remain friends for many years. Agnes wants to be an actress but has no real talent. She marries and has children: Julianna has one daughter, Aurore.
Her life, in an odd way, mirrors that of Agnes. When she grows up, Aurore too wants to be an actress and looks likely to succeed until a grotesque and tragic decision causes her death. "A disgraceful act", an earlier piece of treachery caused by jealousy of the young Aurore, colours the whole of Agnes's memories as she ages. It was perhaps a mistake to put a note at the end giving the names of the people the story is based upon.
Angelica Garnett says it was originally written as a memoir, and this sometimes shows in too rapid, factual-sounding transitions. The other two stories, "Friendship" and "The Birthday Party", are slighter: studies in old age, the destruction of relationships and death. But the whole book is distinguished by writing of great subtlety, whose precisely caught images and observations surprise and delight.
William Palmer's collection of stories, 'Four Last Things', has been re-issued by Faber FindsReuse content