I'm easily swayed by others into picking up a new book, or in this case a short story or two, that I've been meaning to read. I really love reading short stories, and I'm not sure why I don't read them more often. Usually it's just a case of being spoilt for choice and with so many good books on the go at once, it's hard to get in all the reading I want to each day or even each week. So I've slowly been working my way through Colm Toíbín's The Empty Family and really do need to wrap things up and finish the last few short stories in this recent collection, which I've let languish now for far too long.
Last week Caroline wrote about several short stories she read by Irish authors for the Irish Short Story Week hosted by The Reading Life which is going on through March 22. I was afraid I had missed it entirely, but I have managed to squeeze in a couple of short stories this past weekend. It was a nice reminder of just how much I enjoy the short story format and I am now going to try and read at least one a week (famous last words, I'll try anyway). Although I should have picked up the Toíbín, I was so intrigued by what Caroline had to say about the story she read by Elizabeth Bowen, I decided to see whether I could get my hands on it instead.
As luck would have it, I have a number of books by Bowen, who I've read in the past and admire immensely. I already had plans to pick up one of her novels, and after reading another of her short stories I am even more determined to do so (I have read a few of her short stories in the past by the way). She is yet another of those authors whose work I began collecting after I read a couple of her books. I'm happy I did so, as I now have a wonderful collection of her stories to dig into, Collected Stories published by Vintage Classics. It's big, chunky book of over 700 pages and contains more than seventy-five of her stories grouped roughly chronologically.
I had planned to read the same story as Caroline, but when I started looking through all the choices, I decided to read one of her stories written during the war years called "The Happy Autumn Fields". It's a brilliant story. It literally gave me goosebumps when I finished it. It's a ghost story, but the goosebumps were more a result of the excellence of her writing rather than a fear of what she wrote about. However, there is a feeling of the uncanny in the story--something happening which you don't expect. As the story unravels you don't first see the connection as there are two parallel stories that will come together in an unusual way.
It's almost too hard to describe without ruining it for anyone who wants to read it and be surprised. In one thread, the story begins with a family is crossing a field one autumn day--the last day they will be able to spend together before the younger sons return to school. The oldest son and heir is in the army and is visiting home and has brought a friend. This is a landowning family and there's the suggestion that the boys had been out hunting, perhaps an annual even to mark the day before school begins and everyone scatters. But the focus is more on the younger two sisters, who are quite close and almost never out of each other's company. One shows an obvious attraction towards the oldest brother's friend and the feeling seems to be reciprocated.
In the second thread, which is shorter, a woman awakes in her flat which has been bombed during the Blitz and a friend, perhaps a lover, arrives to encourage her to leave before the building falls down into a heap. She's awakened from a fitful sleep of strange dreams and digs through the rubble to find the things she must take with her when she leaves including a box of letters and memorabilia from long ago dead relatives. So, I'm going to leave you hanging and not tell you the connection between the two threads. Do look for Elizabeth Bowen's stories if you've read and enjoyed any of her other work. She was a remarkable short story writer. Like Elizabeth Taylor she is another author who can convey so much, and in such a sophisticated manner very, very subtly.
Since I was on a roll and had pulled another collection of Irish writing from my shelves when I went looking for Elizabeth Bowen's books, I read a short story by another writer whose work I've read and think highly of, William Trevor. Trevor is also a very talented short story writer. I read his story, "The Ballroom of Romance" from The Vintage Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction. This collection has both excerpts from novels as well as short stories by more than fifty different Irish authors writing today. It's a book I bought ages ago and never got around to reading. Every book has its day, though. When the moment is right, I'll pluck it from the shelf and give it some well-deserved attention. Now I want to read all the stories in this book, too. It can be very dangerous to have a nice personal library to draw from.
Trevor is a wonderful author, too, but his style is very different than Bowen's--equally well written but in a simpler more straightforward style. Bowen's story had a slightly complicated structure that took a little time to get used to. Right from the start you fall into Trevor's story about rural Ireland sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Bridie, an only daughter, and a good daughter, has been left to tend to her father after the death of her mother. Her father is disabled after having lost a leg to gangrene and must care not only for him but must help attend to the chores necessary to keep their farm running. Since they live miles from the local town and Bridie has only an ancient bicycle to use for transportation it means her interaction with anyone other than her father and the local priest is limited. And life seems to have passed Bridie by, as at 39, she is alone when all her school friends have moved or married.
Her only respite is her weekly trips into town for shopping and mass. But on Saturday nights she cycles to a local dance-hall called The Ballroom of Romance. She's not the only unmarried woman of a certain age to go to the local dances where she watches the rest of the locals and ruminates on her own life and those of the others. She remembers the one boy she loved so long ago who married someone else, a lost opportunity that will never come again. Now there is only the chance of brief couplings--chances to kiss in the fields on her way home with the middle aged bachelors. The few men who are unattached are a rarity and in high demand by the other few women who never had a chance to marry either. This is a melancholic story of a life given to responsibility and missed chances and the possibility to find if not true happiness at least some form of comfort.
Both stories were wonderful and I am so glad I was prompted to go in search of them. I've already pulled books from my shelves by both Bowen and Trevor, and I might have to keep both of these anthologies close at hand as well. I do think I'll return to my Toíbín book first, however. And just as an aside, aren't the covers of both books wonderful?