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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber and other stories, King Penguin, 1983, 124 p.

The author had previously translated the fairy stories of Charles Perrault and clearly knew the byways of her subject. In this collection she gives us ten reworkings of fairy tales bringing to light the usually buried sexual admonitions embedded within them. All are written with an extreme literary sensibility, each verb is carefully chosen, each simile precise. This collection presents fantasy as high art.

The Bloody Chamber begins with the fretful wedding night train journey to his tidal island castle of a seventeen-year old ingenue just married to a much older man who has gone through three wives already, with the pair in adjoining compartments. Once home he conveys her to a mirror-lined bedchamber filled with lilies, that staining flower, and undresses her like a sacrifice. But the deed is not to be done just yet. “Anticipation is the greater part of pleasure, my little love.” Later, she quotes her husband’s favourite poet, “‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.’” The next morning before leaving on a business trip he entrusts her with his keys – including one to a room she must not enter. This story implies that it is not just marriage but sex itself that is a bloody chamber.

The Courtship of Mr Lyon is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast as a kind of Sleeping Beauty in reverse.

The Tiger’s Bride also reimagines Beauty and the Beast. Beauty is lost to the Beast by her father in a game of cards and at first refuses the Beast’s single request of her, but in the end she strikes a different bargain.

Puss-in-Boots is narrated by the eponymous cat, all-seeing, all-knowing, conniving to ensure his impecunious and lustful master secures the love of his life, the beautiful, young, but closely cloistered, wife of an impotent grasper, fleetingly glimpsed one day as she goes to Mass. In its telling it has a central European quality to it, as befits the darker folk tale.

The Erl-King by contrast has an English feel with its evocations of woodland flora and fauna although it does contain an embedded reference to Little Red Riding Hood. It reads as a warning against the immolating snares of sexual attraction – until its dénouement.

The Snow Child is barely a page long. Out riding with his wife a Count meets the girl of his dreams, skin white as snow, mouth red as blood, hair black as ravens’ feathers. Responding to the Countess’s requests made in order to be rid of her, the girl picks a rose, is pricked and dies. Pricked again by the Count, she melts away, leaving only a bloodstain and the rose, to prick again.

The Lady of the House of Love is Nosferatu’s daughter, the last in a long line of vampires, dressed, like Miss Havisham, in a bridal gown, laying out her Tarot cards in her decaying château in a deserted Transylvanian village. An innocent young Englishman travelling on a bicycle causes her usual ritual to misfire. Early allusions to The Sleeping Beauty are deliberately misleading.

The Werewolf begins, “It is a northern country; they have cold weather, they have cold hearts.” In climes like these the supernatural is taken for granted – and easily found in untimely ripened cheeses, a friendly cat, or the marks on an old woman’s skin. The tale that follows can be read as one of a granddaughter discovering her grandmother has been a werewolf all her life or else that Little Red Riding Hood was a conniving little minx scheming to come into her inheritance much earlier than she should.

The more blatant reworking of Little Red Riding Hood, the award winning The Company of Wolves, contains the information, “Before he can become a wolf, the lycanthrope strips stark naked. If you spy a naked man among the pines, you must run as if the Devil were after you.” That second sentence is good advice at any time. As to the wolf, “Carnivore incarnate, only immaculate flesh appeases him.”

Wolf-Alice was abandoned by her mother in the woods as a new-born and suckled by wolves. When she is finally discovered by humans she is feral and, the nuns who first looked after her despairing of the task of civilising her, she is handed over to the care of the local Duke, himself a nocturnal cannibal who scavenges the local graveyards.

Pedant’s corner:- sunk (sank,) Missus’ (x 2, Missus’s, annoyingly rendered as such in a later instance, so no excuse,) rhuematicks (may have been a deliberate ‘olde worlde’ spelling but; rheumatics,) “none of her features exhibit any of those touching imperfections” (none .. exhibits,) a missing full stop. “Give me two spheres and a straight line and I will show you how far I can take them.” (This was said of a bicycle. Very rarely do these have two spheres. Two circles at a pinch, but more likely two thin cylinders as the wheels do have a measurable cross-section,) “gestured him to begone” (to be gone,) “night and the forest has come into the kitchen” (is either missing a comma after ‘night’ or else requires the plural verb form ‘have’.) “This dazzling, she combed out her hair with her fingers” (needs some sort of expansion.)

The Clydesiders by Margaret Thomson Davis

Black and White, 1999, 276 p.

In an Oxfam bookshop I picked up the second book of the trilogy of which this is the first to check the flyleaf blurb. It mentioned the Empire Exhibition 1938, which its characters visit, so of course I had to buy it – and the third instalment which accompanied it. That left this one, which fortunately (or not) was available through Fife Libraries.

The Clydesiders starts in 1914. Victoria Watson is a young woman raised in a room and kitchen in the Gorbals, now in service as a kitchen maid in Hilltop House, the home of the Cartwright family. The son of the house, Nicholas, takes a fancy to her one day when she is out picking mushrooms for the table. The inevitable progression happens. With him being an Army officer the outbreak of war means their enforced separation but not before she has informed him, and he his mother, of her pregnancy. Against his professed wishes that Victoria be kept on, Mrs Cartwright summarily dismisses Victoria the day of his departure for Belgium and she is forced back to the dismal, insanitary conditions of her parent’s home. Not that its interior is unclean, that was a source of pride to working-class women. It is the overcrowding, the overflowing communal lavatory which the landlord will not fix, the vermin, and the back middens which make the building a slum.

Mrs Cartwright changes her tune when her son is reported dead, takes Victoria on temporarily as a maid/companion in her Helensburgh house and offers to bring the child up in comfort provided Victoria will have no more to do with her child. Despite her misgivings Victoria accedes to the request (which is really more of an order,) hands over her baby son and returns to her parents’ home.

In the meanwhile the political circumstances of the time background the story. The slum conditions, the raising of rents and most especially the perceived injustice of the war, fought by working men against working men for the benefit of their rulers, fired up a teacher, John Maclean, to protest. Victoria’s family are keen socialists but, even so, one of her brothers is working in a munitions plant and gets her a job there. Many of the “Red Clydesiders” protests and the authorities’ heavy-handed measures to restrain them are covered in the book. Due to her involvement in the movement Victoria meets another dedicated socialist, James Mathieson.

Tragedy then hits the Watsons as brother Ian is killed in an explosion in the factory. Mathieson then discovers the factory owner is none other than the Mr Cartwright who is Victoria’s son’s grandfather. Though she does not love him things progress between Victorian and Mathieson, but nevertheless she marries him. All this might have been fine but proceedings descend into melodrama when a few months later Richard Cartwright is found to be alive in a hospital in England and Victoria’s feelings are torn.

The writing here never rises above the workmanlike. There is a high degree of information dumping with too many circumstances of early twentieth century life deemed to require explanation, like the prevalence and cause of the disease rickets, the Scottish word ‘douts’ for dogends, and so on. The nature of Mr Cartwright’s business is unnecessarily kept from the reader so as to heighten the later conflict. The overall story relies too much on unlikely incident and coincidence. Victoria’s father, brothers and husband are throughout little more than mouthpieces. Nearly all the characters are types rather than individuals.

This is not high literature then. I suppose it was never intended to be. But it does highlight the conditions and grievances which led to the notion of socialism as a potential remedy for them

I still have two more books in the sequence to read……

Pedant’s corner:- lambant (lambent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) Mrs Smithers’ (this, on the same page as Nicholas’s, ought to be Smithers’s,) ditto Tompkins’ (Tompkins’s,) bisom (usually spelled besom,) “‘who madam wants to speak to in the living room?’” (wasn’t a question so needs no question mark.) A man sings ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ in the street (in mid-1914?) There are mentions of munition workers turning yellow (again, in 1914?) “stunted childrens growth” (children’s,) “leaning back in this chair” (his chair.) “The Gairloch” (It’s ‘Gare Loch’, Gairloch is a village in northwest Scotland,) John Maclean is arrested as a “prisoner of war” (he could not have been a prisoner of war. He wasn’t an enemy combatant,) James’ (many times, but also – more than once – the correct James’s.) “She’d certainly could not have imagined” (She certainly could not,) St Andrew’s Hall (x 2, it was always ‘St Andrew’s Halls’,) “the crowd who welcomed” (the crowd which welcomed.) “‘Who’s side are you on?’” (Whose side,) a telegram is sent to Mrs Watson to tell her her son is missing in action, believed killed. (He was married, it would have been sent to his wife,) “for goodness’ sake” (varies between this and ‘for goodness sake’,) during one encounter Nicholas refers to our heroine as Virginia Mathieson (he would more likely have used her maiden surname here.)

The Atom Station by Halldór Laxness

Vintage , 2003, 186 p. Translated from the Icelandic Atómstöðin (Helgafell, Reykjavik, 1948,) by Magnus Magnusson.

It is a time of political dispute in Iceland. The US has proposed to lease some land for what is always referred to in the text as an Atom Station. Opponents of this plan regard the potential base as a possible target for nuclear annihilation and in any case a sellout of Iceland’s seven-hundred-year struggle for independence. Our narrator Ugla is a country girl from the north who has come to Reykjavík to work as a maid in the house of her Member of Parliament, Búi Árland. She finds him, baldness and all, strangely attractive, his voice alone enough to make Ugla weak at the knees, though she does not express this outwardly. His overbearing wife treats her more or less dismissively. (The domestic environment here for some reason reminded me a little of those in the Norwegian TV drama State of Happiness shown on BBC Four in 2020.) Ugla also has ambitions to learn to play the harmonium and so goes to the teacher’s house to do so. There she meets various people with various parts to play later in the novel.

The Atom Station is a satire (mostly on politics) with heightened descriptions and characters named Brilliantine, the unselfconscious policeman, the organist, Cleopatra, and Two Hundred Thousand Pliers. There is also a strand involving a historical character known as the Nation’s Darling and the prospect of the return of his bones from Copenhagen to be re-interred in Iceland. (When they are it is in two crates – either of which may contain the real bones, or not.)

Ugla’s rich employers vilify Communists, but nevertheless she attends cell-meetings and agrees with the desire of the comrades for Day Nurseries for the nation’s poor. These, of course are derided by the moneyed classes who fail to see why they should pay for the education of the poor.

Ugla remembers, “When we children were little we were forbidden to laugh – out loud; that was wicked.” Furthermore “all cheerfulness which went beyond moderation was of the devil.” To talk about feelings would be “idle chatter,” unseemly. Tears were shameful. Yet later, after Búi Árland has procured his fourteen-year-old daughter an abortion, Ugla, while comforting, her notes her weeping and reflects, “Anyone who weeps does not die; weeping is a sign of life; weep and your life is worth something again.” In this respect rural Iceland is very similar to Scotland. Despite her exposure to a more comfortable existence fripperies are still strange to her. “What is the point of making a picture which is meant to be like Nature, when everyone knows that this is the one thing which a picture cannot be and should not and must not be?”

The text is scattered with sly observations on life. In one of Ugla’s conversations with the organist he says, “‘The reason a man talks is to hide his thoughts,’” and she goes on to tell us, “A man who says what he is thinking about is absurd; at least to a woman.” When someone says he has plenty of money, her reply is, “‘Plenty,’ I echoed. ‘If there is plenty, then it has quite certainly not been well come by.’” The organist has many comments to make, among them, “Nations are not very important on the whole.” He goes on to add that the Roman Empire was not a country, and, “China has never been a country, Christendom of the Middle Ages was not a country, Capitalism and Communism are not countries, East and West are not countries. Iceland is a country only in a geographical definition.” He is astringent on societal arrangements and the abuse of power, “If someone wants to steal in a thieves’ community he must steal according to the laws; and he should preferably have taken part in making the laws himself.”

In a campaign called over the question of the Atom Station Ugla is cynical as electioneering politicians swore they would not give part of the country over to foreigners – “they swore it on the country, on the nation and on history, swore it on all the gods and sacred relics they claimed to believe in, swore it on their mothers; but first and foremost they swore it on their honour. And then I knew that now it had been done.”

She is a strikingly free-thinking woman who, even after becoming pregnant by the unselfconscious policeman and a birth for which she had to go back to a more accepting home, wishes to be an independent person, “neither an unpaid bondswoman like the wives of the poor nor a bought madam like the wives of the rich; much less a paid mistress; nor the prisoner of a child which society has disowned.” “I know it’s laughable, comtemptible, disgraceful and revolutionary that a woman should not wish to be some sort of slave or harlot; but that’s the way I’m made.” She rejects the largesse which Búi Árland offers, “I want money which I have earned for myself because I am a person.”

In the end The Atom Station is not really about politics, and not about Iceland. It is about human relationships and their infinite variety.

Pedant’s corner:- In a footnote; calender (calendar.) Otherwise; a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, fifty minks (I have always understood the plural of mink [the animal] to be ‘mink’, minks would be the plural for the stoles made from their fur,) “I had to muster all my strength not lose touch” (not to lose touch,) “it is an an attack” (only one ‘an’ needed.)

Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor, 2018, 228 p.

When a first person narrator (here the titular Binti) dies halfway through the text it presents something of a problem for the author. How do you carry on? How can the story not finish then and there? Okorafor’s solution here is to switch to third person – at least till the end of the chapter, when Binti comes alive again, (with a bit of authorial hand-waving. Microbes, she is told by her alien companion Okwu, “blended with your genes and repaired you,” in a breathing chamber in a young spaceship called New Fish.) I would submit that this aspect of the book (though there are others too) makes it more of a Fantasy than Science Fiction. Or is that just me being purist? Still, it makes for an interesting read.

Once more (see here for my previous experience of this scenario) her ever dwindling supply of the skin-covering paste called otjize is a constant source of concern for Binti, without it she feels naked and again she makes extensive use of her edan. Her Meduse okuoko (blue tentacles on her head instead of hair) mark her out, though.

There is still a war going on between humans called the Khoush and the alien Meduse. Binti has moved on from Oomza Uni, the first of her Himba people to go there, the first to leave Earth. Now part Meduse, she has an affinity with and ability to use mathematics, calling up currents to “tree”. When stressed she repeats the word “five” to calm herself. She also has a connection to the Enyi Zinariya, twenty-foot-tall slender beings who seemed to be made of molten gold. Accompanied by Mwinyi, a zinariya, she is going back to her homeland to try to broker a peace between the Khoush and the Meduse. Her family produced astrolabes, devices which carry the full record of your entire life. Hers and her father’s were the best in the business. In times of crisis Himba turn inward. Her family did so (into the Root where they lived) when their village was threatened by the Khoush and their Root was burned so Binti thinks they are all dead.

In the run up to the peace meeting she sees once again The Night Masquerade, a spirit previously only appearing to males (but which we later find is not a spirit,) thereby confirming her unique status. During the negotiations something goes wrong (a minion on one side did not like the prospect and opened fire) and Binti gets shot. Her body is taken on board the New Fish and taken to the rings of Saturn about which she had had a premonition. She reflects, “It was so unlike Earth, where wars were fought over and because of differences and most couldn’t relate to anyone unless they were similar.”

It all makes sense in context and Binti is an engaging companion. It is also still refreshing to read SF from beyond the familiar Anglophile template.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” ~(or equivalent) count, 8. Otherwise; zinairya (elsewhere zinariya,) spit (spat,) sunk (several times; sank,) shrunk (shrank.) “Astrolabes were the only object that… (objects,) shined (several times; shone.) “None around me were beathing” (was breathing,) “the feel of the numbers … were such a relief” (the feel … was such a relief.) “I didn’t want to go with.” (I didn’t want to go with him,) accidently (accidentally,) a missing quote mark at the end of a piece of direct speech, “their skin and hair was nearly free of otjize” (were nearly free,) “presented the dress she’s sewn for” (the rest of the sentence was in past tense, ‘she’d sewn’,) “the Roots defenses” (Root’s, [defences],) “off of” (just ‘off’,) “as Mwinyi and Okwu moved went New Fish’s walkway” (I have no idea why that ‘went’ is there. The ‘moved’ is a bit iffy too,) “the far side of the doom” (dome,) two full stops at the end of one sentence.

Highland River by Neil M Gunn

Canongate Classics, 1996, 246 p, plus vi p Introduction by Dairmid Gunn. First published in 1937.

Though it is couched as a sort of biography of Kenn, a young boy growing up into manhood and early middle age, this is an unusual novel in that its focus is really on the river of the title – almost a character in its own right – and clearly rooted in the author’s upbringing in the town of Dunbeath in Caithness and his knowledge of the Dunbeath Water which runs into the sea there. Evocation of landscape is a major component of the Scottish novel in general but not always as to the fore as it is here. Gunn’s descriptions of the river are precise and detailed so that the reader almost feels present. Not that he neglects characterisation; Kenn’s mother, elder brother and father are sketched economically but powerfully and all the minor characters have the stuff of life. It is, too, a philosphical novel, crammed with the thoughts Gunn puts into Kenn’s head as he recounts his experiences. It joins the long roll of Scottish literature about times lost and a way of life remembered.

The first scene is of a very young Kenn’s struggle with a huge cock salmon in the lower reaches of the river. In the end he manages to land it and this marks his transition into boyhood. (This episode is also commemorated by a statue erected by proud locals alongside the harbour in Dunbeath. I featured the statue in this post.)

This is one of many instances where the catching of fish (whether trout or salmon) is portrayed, the elaborate precautions taken to avoid gamekeepers, the deep knowledge of the likely pools, the intricate procedures needed to spy the fish and entrap it. Another early scene shows the disconnect between geography lessons about the main industries of English cities and Kenn’s daily life. None of that mundane esoterica is relevant to existence in a small village. Kenn finds himself dreaming through such lessons and as a result becomes the subject of his teacher’s wrath, expressed as was the custom of the times via the institutionalised violence of the tawse.

In contrast, despite the reticence bred by Calvinism – “None of the mothers in that land kissed their sons. If it were known that a boy had been kissed by his mother, not a dozen school fights would clear him of the dark shame of such weakness,” a weakness seen as more the mother’s than the son’s, “Nor can Kenn remember having seen his father kiss his mother ….. affection was as shy and as invisible as death,” – his parent’s quiet attitude to Kenn’s academic success and his own reluctance to declare it speak volumes.

As for the rock of the family, “Kenn’s mother did not go to church simply because she believed she was not worthy ….. She had done nothing to make herself unworthy. She was seen in her life as a good woman and without reproach. Yet she believed herself unworthy.” The men, too, did not take communion; their lives, tainted by rough living (and the odd drink,) had “not contained enough solemnity of holiness to justify them in going forward.”

The narrative flits back and forth through time between Kenn’s childhood, his experiences in the Great War and his life as a physicist afterwards, but the transitions are not jarring. They seem to occur organically, scenes flowing smoothly into one another. It is a kind of stream of consciousness, but controlled, always alert to the point. The removal in the Highland Clearances of Kenn’s not so ancient ancestors from the land they had worked since time immemorial, henceforth to make their living through sea-fishing, is mentioned in passing but without it they would not have been in reduced circumstances.

Through it all the river exerts its pull, Kenn’s last journey in the book marking his progress at last up to its source where he thinks, “Out of great works of art, out of great writing, there comes upon the soul sometimes a feeling of strange intimacy.” Here, Gunn’s intimacy with his subject, his feel for his particular hinterland, reaches beyond the Dunbeath Water, beyond the village which shares its name, beyond Scotland, to become universal, recognised by Highland River’s award of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1937.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a quote is given partly as “you make me try to see him” (the text actually has ‘you made me try’,) “no so ancient” (not so ancient.) Otherwise; Sans’ (several times, Sans’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 3,) milennia (millenia,) Archimedes’ (Archimedes’s,) acction (action,) “this land of bare moors had their austere effect” (had its austere effect.)

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

World Books, 1967, 186 p, including 9 p Introduction by Francis Wyndham.

This is the fruit of the author’s fixation with “the mad woman in the attic,” the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel is told in three Parts, the first and third from the viewpoint of the unfortunate Antoinette (or Bertha as her husband calls her,) the second, and much the longest, from his and hers.

The first two Parts are set in the West Indies, where Antoinette, the offspring of a Creole family, was brought up. In Part One she describes her early life. Part Two is the story of her (unnamed in the text) husband’s sojourn in the West Indies, where he and Antoinette married quickly after the illness which followed his arrival, and honeymooned in Dominica. There he receives a letter from a man who claims to be Antoinette’s half-brother, telling him he has been duped into the match as Antoinette is unstable and has a past. This is backed up by the attitude of those in Jamaica who knew her. The marriage is thereby doomed, its failure and her husband’s adultery contribute to Antoinette’s mental decline. Part Three sees our heroine locked up in an attic in England (though she is not entirely sure she is in that country) attended only by a nurse called Grace Poole. Hers and Antoinette’s names along with those of her stepfather and stepbrother are the only overt clues to the connection between this story and Jane Eyre. There are of course other correspondences, however; Antoinette/Bertha’s fascination with fire, her taking advantage of Poole’s falling asleep to roam the wider house, her attack on a man who comes to visit her, but this book is complete in and of itself and could be read with no knowledge of the previous book without any detraction from it.

Wide Sargasso Sea is both a commentary on Jane Eyre and on the ramifications of slavery and its abolition. Its illustration of the inequality of power between men and women also reflects the ending of Brontë’s novel where Jane brings herself to marry Rochester only after he has been blinded, when she has the advantage. There is, however, a kind of opacity to Rhys’s writing which makes it something of a chore to read.

Note to the sensitive; there are many uses of the n-word, but that is true to the times depicted.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; diststrous (disastrous.) Otherwise – a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) a comma missing at the end of a piece of direct speech, cocoanut (nowadays spelled coconut,) “the row of small trees outside my window were covered” (the row …. was covered,) 14 completed thoughts, italicised and in parentheses, mostly of one sentence but some with two, giving us the husband’s thoughts while someone else is speaking to him but only 12 of them had full stops at the end, hynotized (hypnotised,) frangipanni (frangipani; as used earlier.)

Tom Swift and the Captive Planetoid by Victor Appleton II

Collins, 1969, 157 p. Illustrated by Ray Johnson.

This one is definitely of its time. A boys’ own adventure written in breathless prose full of exclamation marks and with a “Gee Whizz!” and “Jumpin’ Jets!” style of dialogue. It was part of an ongoing series – five others are listed on the back cover – and refers to Tom Swift’s many “brilliant inventions” (some of which seem to have been able to be brought to market in short order by a couple of retainers) and previous “thrilling adventures”.

His latest wheeze is a thermal wing for re-entry – which is used for bouncing on the atmosphere like a skimming stone. This is his Duratherm Wing – or Durathermor for short (though Durathermor is hardly any shorter) and Durabuoy crash shield. Other late sixties coinages the author makes are repelatrons, Tomasite, and asbestalon. (That last would surely be given a health and safety swerve these days.)

Incidents come thick and fast – we start with an attack on a US spaceport base by black clad raiders whose costumes are blazoned with a sphere and lightning bolt symbol. This is followed up by Tom accused of being involved and his plan to hollow out an asteroid for use as a space vessel as a threat to his country. A package delivered to him turns out to contain deadly flying insects. Mysterious men arrange meetings with patsies to further implicate Tom. Despite his troubles on Earth Tom still finds time to make an excursion to an asteroid which has been brought into Earth orbit by some force or other. Using it as a test bed for his plan for an asteroid ship he finds it has a sapphire core. He manages to hop into and back from space as if he’s taking aeroplane trips. On one occasion he is accompanied by a chef named Chow. Tom’s sister and her friend make a brief appearance as companions for Tom and Bud on a trip to the beach and have as little agency as you would expect from “girls” in late sixties “juvenile” SF.

In its favour the colourful cover and grey and white endpapers are wonderfully redolent of the age though the four interior black and white illustrations are more humdrum.

I note, however, that this was a time when British publishers took care to reproduce US publications using, for the most part, British spellings. Hurrah!

Pedant’s corner:- Time interval later (or equivalent) count; 21. Otherwise: dryly (drily,) “lighter-than-air buoyancy” (less dense than air buoyancy,) Petronius’ (several times; Petronius’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

The Dark Mile by D K Broster

William Heinemann, 1958, 370 p.

 The Dark Mile cover

While Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, the protagonist of Broster’s first two books of her Jacobite trilogy (see here and here) does make an appearance in this last of the three, the book’s main focus is on the troubles of his cousin Ian Stewart of Invernacree. While riding home one day Ian witnesses a coach overturn into a loch and is called upon to rescue the lady trapped inside and take her to his father’s house to be cared for till she recovers. She turns out to be Olivia Campbell, the daughter of Campbell of Cairns, the man who commanded that part of the government forces which killed Ian’s elder brother Adam at the Battle of Culloden. Despite his growing feelings towards her this impediment to marriage means that any liaison is foredoomed.

In the meanwhile, Finlay MacPhair of Glenshian, an old foe, has contrived to make it look like Ewen Cameron or one of his tenants (which amounts to the same thing) has stolen two of his cattle and is pursuing him in the courts for restitution while he has attempted to persuade a Mr Maitland, the sender of the letter to the Government which had in the end resulted in the execution for treason during the rebellion of Ewen’s kinsman Archibald Cameron (and for which Maitland now suffers pangs of conscience,) to give the credit for this to Glenshian so that he can claim recompense for the many favours he thinks the government owes him. Maitland is a friend of Olivia Campbell’s family; indeed she calls him godfather. There is also some toing and froing as regards Hector Grant, who has formed an attachment to Ian Stewart’s sister, and whose imprisonment by Glenshian leads to him discovering the truth of the ploy with the cattle by overhearing a conversation in Gaelic which Glenshian’s retainer does not realise Grant can understand.

There is a degree of buckling of swashes, (made difficult it’s true by the bar on bearing arms suffered by Highland gentlemen in the wake of the ’45,) a high degree of coincidence and a blizzard of exclamation marks, not to mention a convoluted means by which our thwarted lovers may achieve a happy conclusion – all of which signal that the literature here may not be quite of the highest quality. But it fulfils the function of the adventure story (the good guys win and the baddies get their comeuppance) and serves as a reminder that the ramifications of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat resonated and not only in the general but also the personal lives of the inhabitants of Highland Scotland – and beyond – for many years afterwards.

Pedant’s corner:- “the two Miss Stewarts” (the two Misses Stewart,) Campbell of Cairns’ (Cairns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, staunch (stanch,) focussing (focusing.) “None of the farmhouse people were stirring” (None … was stirring,) “he dare not touch her again” (the narration is in past tense; ‘dared not’,) a missing full stop.

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

Black and White, 2012, 280 p.

The first eleven stories in this collection were originally published in The Ragged Man’s Complaint (which I reviewed here) so I started this book on page 155. Throughout the other eleven tale shere Robertson’s writing is crisp and economical, capturing the situations and his characters in all the words required and no more. This is good stuff.

Opportunities is the tale of one evening in the lives of a pair of couples when various interpersonal dynamics swirl under the surface.
In The Shelf a couple has moved into a new smaller home and need to remove a shelf to place a flat-pack wardrobe against the wall. It turns out to be a bigger job than expected. In the meantime, strange things are going on in the street outside.
One day The Dictionary stops working. The words slide about all over the place, disordered, making it impossible to find the one our first person narrator is looking for. Even the new ones in the bookshop have the same defect.
The Dayshift worked by a border guard takes on even more meaninglessness when the regime changes and people can move to and fro across the border without being checked.
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell Everything I Know) features an old lady entering a specialist record shop wanting to buy music with some feeling. The guy there introduces her to the blues. But he’s not the owner and doesn’t work there.
Willie Masson’s Miracle. Willie is a housebound man, barely able to move and whose wife is in a Home. His neighbour, Mrs Bovie, drops in from time to time and a nurse comes in to see to his needs. One day he manages to get his arm to jerk.
Mr Meiklejohn has just left the dentist when The Rock Cake Incident occurs as he relaxes in a café afterwards. As a result he will need to visit the dentist again.
Old Mortality is set in an old, apparently deserted, graveyard where a man has taken his pregnant partner to see the headstone of his ancestors. They come across an old man whose purpose in life seems to be chipping the names from the monuments.
Christie lives alone in a house overlooking the field wherein lay MacTaggart’s Shed and imagines he sees ghosts there – but they may only be sheep. There is some kind of civil war still going on and not long ago an atrocity took place in the shed which was then burnt down.
The Future According to Luke is a repeat of the past. Luke Stands Alone is a native American living on a reservation. He, Dean and Johhny’s only entertainment is to cross the reservation’s border to Jubal’s Buffalo Saloon, situated between Bombing Range Road and the highway to Custer. Luke’s predictions all come true but that’s because they’ve already happened.
A man goes to visit an old building where everything is at Sixes and Sevens. His grandfather, a casualty of the Great War, once lived there, but it is now being sold off. The two caretakers treat him as if he’s a patient.

Pedant’s corner:- not a single thing to note. Remarkable.

The Rental Heart and other fairy tales by Kirsty Logan

Salt, 2014, 153 p.

Within this collection are twenty stories of varying length but none could be said to outstay their welcome. Logan’s inspiration here is clearly derived from fairy tales; but only one of them, the last, begins with “Once upon a time.” Apart from the usual admonitory accounts, some are celebratory and some have tints of magic realism. In general Logan’s writing here is more satisfactory and tighter than in her two novels The Gracekeepers and The Gloaming. Then again it ought to be. In a short story no word should be wasted.

The Rental Heart revolves around the renting of clockwork hearts easily returned to the rental place when they get broken, as hearts always do.
Underskirts has no fewer than ten narrators in its eleven pages each adding their own perspective to the tale of the local Lady who has a taste for young girls from the neighbourhood.
In A Skulk of Saints Lauren works as a medic “peering at the insides of people” in a hospital under the gaze of representations of saints, while in her personal life negotiating her relationship with heavily pregnant partner Hope.
The Last 3,600 Seconds is the stream of consciousness of a woman whose memories crowd in on her during the last ever 3,600 seconds of the universe.
The Broken West is the story of two unusually close brothers searching for their father through a series of dead-beat US towns.
Bibliophagy features a man struggling to conceal from his family his addiction to eating words, words which, like an alcoholic with booze, he hides in various locations.
Coin-Operated Boys are clockwork male escorts hired out from a shop called A Man for All Seasons. Set in Paris, the story has a fin-de-siècle feel.
Girl #18 is the latest to offer sympathy after our narrator’s sister has died.
In Una and Coll are not Friends the pair are put in a room separate from their peers to sit a maths test. Una is distracted by Coll’s tail. She herself has antlers.
In a water-drowned world The Gracekeeper tends to her charges, the Graces of the title, kept in cages. Logan expanded this tale into her first novel.
Sleeping Beauty is a taut tale of sexual assault; told backwards.
In Witch a young girl goes into the woods to spook her friend and meets BabaYaga.
Barely over a page long, All the Better to Eat You With is a kind of Little Red Riding Hood in reverse, a warning to look out for yourself.
The Man from the Circus rather literalises the metaphor of taking a leap into the unknown. A girl allows herself to be picked up by a man from the circus, a trapeze artist.
Feeding is set in the Australian outback where a couple have set up home, soon after they have lost an expected child. The woman spends her time obsessively in the garden but in the drought conditions nothing will grow.
Momma Grows a Diamond is written as one fragment each from the life of a girl at age ten, eleven, twelve and thirteen, as she becomes a woman. Her mother, who provides services for wounded soldiers, tries to turn her into a diamond so that she will not be broken by men.
Less than a page long, The Light Eater has a titular character who begins to consume light bulbs as a means to guide a lost lover back home.
Matryoshka riffs on Cinderella. Its narrator is the prince’s sister, who loves her servant Matryoshka, the one who sees to her whims day and night and sews her slippers for the great ball.
In Origami a woman whose partner works on the rigs assuages her loneliness by making a man out of folded paper.
Tiger Palace explicitly plays with the conventions of story telling as a (female) traveller works her way through the “impenetrable” forest to the Empress’s palace and finds there no crocodiles disguised as stepping stones for crossing the moat and no tigers inside the palace. Both characters refuse their allotted roles.

Pedant’s corner:- The title page reads “The Rental Heart and other stories” (The book cover has ‘The Rental Heart and other fairy tales’.) More than a few Usian usages. “Before the Resting party arrive” (arrives,) fit (fitted.)

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