Friday, March 30, 2012

Deb reviews Jane Gardam's The People on Privilege Hill

My March Europa Challenge book is Jane Gardam's The People on Privilege Hill. Gardam is definitely one of my favorite authors and I’ve so far loved everything of hers I’ve read, including this collection. Many of the stories in this book went in directions I wasn’t expecting but thoroughly enjoyed. Many were quite funny, in a dry, smart way.

The title story revists Sir Edward Feathers and some of the other characters from Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. It was nice to see them again, but it wasn’t my favorite story in the book. I loved “Babette,” about an author telling her reviewer about a long hidden stash of valuables in her old house. When the current renters turn the woman away, their hubris and greed, along with gravity, result in calamitous consequences.

I also enjoyed the terribly sad “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones,” about an old man who never outgrew being the baby of his genteel family and is accused of child molestation. What a sharp-eyed view of herd mentality and gentrification! Each of these stories, as well as “Pangbourne,” about a lonely woman who develops a unique relationship with a gorilla at a zoo, features a character who is an outsider in some way, an eccentric who the dominant culture can’t appreciate as anything more than an oddity. Which is a shame.

“Flight Path” is a historical story about a boy who visits London to interview for medical training during the Blitz. He goes to his mother’s relatives for the night, and they are ungracious. He goes to the local shelter with their servant and her daughter instead of staying. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I thought the boy’s observations were fascinating — Gardam perfectly captures a youth away from home for the first time, full of hopes and open to new experiences even in frightening circumstances.

A few stories venture into the surreal or supernatural, including “The Milly Ming,” which features a ghost whose presence tips off the main character to a serendipitous discovery, and “Waiting for a Stranger,” whose ghost lets the main character know he appreciates her hospitality. “The Virgins of Bruges” veers into the fantastical as a nun is caught up in strange occurrences on Christmas Eve when she’s stranded while trying to return to England after a family death.

“The Hair of the Dog” and “Dangers” are both very beautiful meditations on the hinge moments in a family’s history. Grown (or nearly) children do a poor job of appreciating their parents in “The Hair of the Dog” and “The Fledgling.” In “Snap,” a woman panics after breaking her ankle the only time she is ever unfaithful to her husband, only to return home to a surprise. Each of these stories brilliantly examines the flawed ways people relate to each other, particularly across generations, and the impossibility of ever completely understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling.

Four women meet again after forty years in “The Last Reunion” at their college, a poignant look at how things are not always as we remember, if we even can remember. On the whole this is a gorgeous collection, and I’m in awe of Gardam’s ability to conjure such complete, fascinating people and lives in such small spaces.

For the rest of my March reading, check out bookconscious.