Sunday, October 16, 2011

MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE by Diana Athill (2011) House of Anansi Press, 196 pages

In her preface to this collection of previously published stories, 93-year-old Diana Athill writes about "being hit" by her first story "one January morning in 1958." And, that in terms of her writing process, "I did not think about them in advance: a feeling would brew up, a first sentence would occur to me, and then the story would come, as though it had been there all the time." Consider the first sentence in "The Real Thing:" "I went to the dance with Thomas Toofat." Already you know something about the narrator and her attitudes. Or the one from "The Return" where she begins, "'Is bombs from the mountain. Not good,' said the man Christos, scraggy at the table over his plate of beans and oil, and wiped his fist across his mouth." It was this story that won a 500-pound prize from The Observer and woke her up to the fact that she "could write and had become happy."

The seductive quality of Athill's stories makes them feel contemporary, even though most of them were scribbled into existence 40-50 years ago. I knew she was a woman ahead of her time from reading her memoirs STET and SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END, so I should have expected the same progressive attitudes from characters in the stories collected here in MIDSUMMER NIGHT IN THE WORKHOUSE. She writes so convincingly about the distances between men and women and with a wry sense of humour. Take, for example, Cecilia's observation about Charles in the titular tale: "He went straight over to take off the record, assuming that she would prefer him to music." Or, the way she boldly teases him by suggesting, "Please do not sleep with the maids. It can cause pregnancy."

The stories are also rife with ordinary moments that stop your heart as in "For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound" when Kate returns with her lover David for a last drink and "halfway up the stairs, he turned in the middle of a sentence to kiss her cheek...almost too natural to notice." Later, in "An Unavoidable Delay" Rose decides that "to go on with this architect would be worse than full skirts, flowered cotton and flat sandals, it would be too banal, not to be thought of."

Diana Athill is a wonder. Find your way to these stories. You will be charmed.

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