CategoryGreen Henry

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

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As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Henry Green, Loving (1945)

Writing is all just words, isn’t it? After all, differences in language notwithstanding, each writer uses essentially the same building blocks. Well, there’s nothing like reading a book where an author writes about a relatively unremarkable situation in an apparently ordinary way – yet still produces something utterly distinctive – to demonstrate that there’s so much more at play than only words. Henry Green’s Loving concerns the lives of the servants and masters of an Irish country house during World War Two, is told largely through dialogue – on the surface, nothing too unusual; but the way Green approaches his material turns it into something more.

Reading the dialogue of Green’s characters is rather like eavesdropping on them: sometimes we join them ‘in the middle’ of a discussion, and there’s often a sense of details remaining unsaid, as of course happens in real conversation. Come to that, there’s a naturalistic feel in general to the structures and rhythms of Green’s dialogue; that, and other techniques such as shifting between separate conversations without a scene-break, encourage a slow, concentrated approach to reading, which suits a book that reveals its details gradually and obliquely.

What emerges within the pages of Loving is a portrait ofKinaltyCastle as a building of contested space: the different servants have their own areas, and for one to enter another’s domain has political meaning. Charley Raunce, the head footman, seizes the opportunity to move up in the hierarchy when the old butler dies; but his wish for one of the maids (rather than his own pantry boy) to bring his tea in the morning becomes a bone of contention because of the shift in power it would represent. Even the manner in which one addresses another is important for the relationship it indicates; Agatha Burch, the head housemaid, tells Raunce: ‘you’ll never get a Mr out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.’

Loving begins with ‘Once upon a day…’ and ends with ‘…happily ever after’, though it’s clear enough that conventional fairytale happiness will not be easy for the characters to achieve. Yet there is something of the fantastical edifice about Kinalty: its inhabitants are so isolated from the war and the outside that the castle effectively becomes a threshold between worlds; the vivid imagery Green often uses to describe Kinalty only adds to the atmosphere of intrigue.

Then, as the novel’s title suggests, there is love. From the complex dance of attraction between Raunce and the maid Edith, to Violet Tennant’s (daughter-in-law of the household) dealing with the absence of her soldier husband Jack – and beyond – love manifests itself in various ways as part of the novel’s web. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel quite like Loving before, and would certainly be intrigued to read Green again.

Thanks to Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog for hosting Henry Green Week, which was what led me to read this book.

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