Good Women By Jane Stevenson

Fancy a spot of anti-gardening?

Sue Gaisford
Thursday 18 July 2013 04:28

Jane Stevenson's anti-heroines would be drummed out of the Women's Institute (at least) for their antics, but there is no denying that the stories are very good indeed. These are flinty, fiery and funny novellas, inhabited by women who may appear to be ordinary and decent but who are, beneath the surface, the spiritual heiresses of Delilah, Lucrezia Borgia and Snow White's stepmother. Finding themselves empowered, later in life than they had imagined any kind of power to be available for the snatching, they take their time, all of them, to plot their own gleeful dénouements. Then, when the moment is right, whoosh, off they go, taking bull by horns, bit between teeth and rough along with very rough indeed.

One of them is a beautiful seductress attracted to a fashionable Scottish architect who then, extremely unwisely, finds fault with her aesthetic standards. Another, a lowly shop-assistant in Mr. Bhatia's pharmacy, discovers that she has a talent for channelling the energy of the universe, a gift that her husband Derek is (once again, most unfortunately for him) reluctant to encourage.

The third is Alice, a widow. She lives in a valuable, if unfashionably-decorated, house in Kew and her garden is famously beautiful. She always put the needs of her husband and only son above her own, and she's well aware of her doormat status: "If anyone but me had so much as lifted a tea-towel, other than on Mother's Day, they'd have had to bring me round with brandy."

When her son threatens her with eviction, the worm finally turns: "I had had plenty of practice in being taken for granted," she says, ominously, "but I drew the line at being eradicated." Her solution is to adopt a kind of "anti-gardening", the pursuit of which leads her into the hairy arms of an old flame - and towards a new, wild and northerly life.

Jane Stevenson writes with easy and erudite fluency, perceptive candour and scalpel-like precision. Her characters are sexy, articulate and persuasive, confiding in us and trusting us to understand the logical necessity of their actions. And we do; we laugh at them, and in spite of our better judgment we often condone their behaviour - and now and again, just for a moment, we even slightly envy them.

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