Extraordinary women, hostile men

MONSIEUR SHOUSHANA'S LEMON TREES by Patricia Duncker Serpent's Tail pounds 9.99

Joan Smith
Saturday 06 September 1997 23:02

Monsieur Shoushana thinks about his lemon trees in a garden in Nice while war breaks out abroad and panic-buying begins in France. Late at night, he sits out on his terrace and watches the lemons gleam in the dark - the first of many images in Patricia Duncker's short stories, in which nature provides a vivid backdrop to scenes of human conflict, a gorgeous setting for the passions which drive her characters to wild extremes of behaviour.

Born in the West Indies, now a lecturer at the University of Wales, she lives part of the year in France and the impact of its countryside is evident in this collection. In "The Crew from M6", for instance, the beauty of the landscape seems to collude with the forces which gather to destroy a TV director who has broken his promise to a group of women he has just filmed; it is a lesbian ghost story with a deceptively bucolic atmosphere.

In "Betrayal", a woman invites her ex-lovers to dinner with predictable results, igniting jealous feelings which lead to a destructive act of revenge. In "Death Before Dishonour", a woman who is revolted by her husband uses her own body as the site of her dramatic rejection of him. In "The Glass Porch", a runaway wife who becomes trapped in the porch of her own home unleashes a pent-up fury which turns her husband into a latter-day St Sebastian.

Indeed throughout the collection the relations between men and women are so mutually hostile that the lesbian characters in "The Crew From M6" simply seem to be spelling out its politics when they complain that "women don't rule the world. Men do". In that sense, these stories are curiously old-fashioned, fighting familiar battles and trying to translate them into effective fiction. What this means is that the women in the stories, from the impossibly stylish women who run a bar in "Betrayal" to the obese narrator of "The Arrival Matters", the novella which closes the collection, have to be extraordinary.

Yet while their rages and their frustrations are immense, Duncker fails to convey a sense of what they are like outside these eidetic and epiphanic moments. They are defined by their anger, their jealousy, even their visual idiosyncrasies, to a point where it is hard to imagine their existence beyond the confines of her highly melodramatic plots. Significantly, the one story which is entirely about men, "The Storm", creates a wholly unbelievable totalitarian state, a cod-mediaeval monastery which employs the mind- control methods of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a way that suggests a genuine perplexity on Duncker's part when she has to try and imagine people going through the motions of everyday life.

This does not come as a complete surprise, even though her first novel, Hallucinating Foucault, received enthusiastic reviews and won the Dillon's First Fiction Award for 1996. That book simultaneously revealed Duncker's sly cleverness with plot and a kind of authorial coldness which kept the characters at arm's length from the reader. Conveying a powerful sense of is own perfection, it was very much a novel to admire, not a piece of fiction to become passionately involved in; the same is true, no matter how great their technical competence, of the stories in Monsieur Shoushana's Lemon Trees. The fictional equivalent of a firework display, their effect is spectacular but short-lived, leaving this reader at least in a state of longing for something messier but more deeply felt.

"[Citrus fruits] add grace notes of cheerfulness and sparkle to the rich complexities of a composition, be it banquet or altarpiece." Gillian Riley provides historical recipes inspired by paintings in the National Gallery in A Feast for the Eyes (National Gallery Publications pounds 14.95, publ 26 September). There's Hogarth's shrimp butter , Provencal fruit compote (with a nod to Cezanne) and Canaletto's Squid and Peas. Left: a detail from Gerolamo dai Libri's "The Virgin and Child with St Anne".

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