This story is from the POV of a woman looking back at her childhood in early-1960’s England. It’s a great portrait of an ethos, of a time when women bore shame and men did not, when children were seen and not heard, when secrets were treasured and truth wasn’t very important – but concealing the truth was.
Stella, the narrator, was at the time of the story an 8-year-old girl who lives with her mom (She is in present time now, in her 50’s). She’s just learned recently that her father is not dead, that he abandoned the family when she was a baby. This was lied about by Mum (Edna) because of course it is shameful to have a man leave you but not shameful to be a widow. I love some of the observations in this piece: “…. so many things that seem quaint now were current and powerful then: shame and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you away from the inside.”
Grandmother Nana is “continually in the process of clearing out, giving things away, as if she were trying to weigh less and less, as if life itself were a mess that she was gradually getting to the bottom of.” Stella “can remember being flooded with happiness once, alone in Nana’s bedroom” just by feeling alive in the breeze looking at colors and textures. The fact that it was only once tells me she is not a happy child, and the fact that this does not consume her tells me that she did not expect to be a happy child. Today, she’d be bundled off to a child therapist for treatment. I probably would have been to – I was so shy in kindergarten, I walked on tiptoe and whispered when I said anything at all. It never occurred to me I could be happy. Stella and I are about the same age, and we see some things the same (my family was well-off, though the family itself was pretty much a wreck, something I didn’t realize until I was much older as secrets were our strength, too).
Mum does not want to move back with Nana: “I thought of Nana as harmless, lightweight, easy to brush aside…But I knew from my mother’s face that for her the idea of moving back into her old home was a living danger… The only way for her to defend herself against Nana’s bleaching, purging worldview was to defy it: to wear scent and lipstick every day….”. And here Nana pretty much fades from view. It’s too bad, she was an interesting character. I suppose she was just to lend background to Mum, but it felt like she was abandoned by the storyteller.
Auntie Andy (aunt on disappeared father’s side) comes to stay with Mum and Stella. This is stretched out a while, Stella in the dark about the reason, but after a day or two (and a page or so) we all find out: Uncle Derek, whose name Stella never knew because she never met him, killed their son Charlie. Stella never liked Charlie, he had “sly and hostile energy, full of contempt for girls and women.” Which he probably learned from Uncle Derek who beat Auntie Andy regularly, and at the trial Stella notes that Derek’s mother says something to give her the impression that his father beat his mother as well. So we have three generations of abusers, though Charlie never got his chance at bat, so to speak. It’s a little advanced for an n 8-year-old to come up with this, but she is speaking from the vantage point of decades later.
The comparison between Mum and Andy as Stella sees it is probably the most interesting part of the story (and considering the murder and trial, that’s saying something). It’s certainly the focus. “What was odd about Auntie Andy, I realized, was that her shyness had been blasted out of her by whatever had happened, the way an explosion can leave people deaf… Her shyness never did come back… was transformed into something different: reserve, or dignity.”
I also found Stella’s reaction to Charlie’s death interesting. “I resented Charlie with a pure rage…. He seemed a usurper in a realm that gave him a huge advantage of pity and terror: he surely didn’t belong there, with his ugly stamping feet.” I had a similar reaction when I learned my ex-husband had died. How unfair! Now I was not allowed ever again to say anything mean about him!
Someone, I don’t remember who or where, said recently of another story that it seemed a story of ideas rather than about the characters. That’s what I think I get here. There are some great ideas here, about how women are treated, how they accept that treatment, and how (maybe) some things have changed a bit. The characters are well-drawn with great anecdotes and Stella’s observations are wonderful. But… it doesn’t feel like a great read to me. It feels like a sociology essay. I don’t have a picture of Stella. Or of Mum or Andy or Nana. And it’s very much a women-against-men world; I can’t imagine a man reading this and not feeling ashamed. Oh, wait! No, feeling shame over someone else’s behavior is what women do.
Tessa Hadley gives an interview in The New Yorker in which she says this is the first chapter of a novel-in-stories about Stella, which may account for the flatness of my experience. Excerpts tend to be background for the more interesting twists of future events in a novel. And I think that’s it, this is great background, and I’m still waiting for the story to start.
[Zin Kenter] Hello, I am Zin! I have something to say about this story! It is less satisfying because it is a victim story – you wrote about this, in the story “The Whore’s Child” by Richard Russo, a student reviewer of the story the nun wrote commented:
“It’s a victim story,” one student recognized. “The character is being acted on by outside forces, but she has no choices, which means there can be no consequences to anything she does. If she doesn’t participate in her own destiny, where’s the story?”
Stella does not participate in her destiny. She can not, she is a child. It is not her destiny at stake! So she is not the central character! But she is the narrator and it feels like her story and it is confusing! Whose destiny is at stake? Auntie Andy of course, what do you do when your husband kills your child, you can lay down and die or you can have Honor and Dignity and find a new husband and get some kind of life back, since life was interrupted but it was not your fault! And that is what Auntie Andy does, except we see her through the eyes of a child remeniscing decades later so it is at a distance. But the story belongs to Andy, I think, and a little bit to Mum who participates in her destiny by letting Andy stay with them, giving Stella the view of two people, three if you count Nana. And she has these three role models of how to live. The problem is – and here is the problem – Stella does not show how these three role models affect her! We do not know! Because it is a novel in stories and we have not read that story yet! This is why novel excerpts do not work as short stories, I am afraid!
But of course that is just what I think. I hope other people will tell me what they think – hello? Is anyone out there?