CategoryMacLeod Alison

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.

Alison MacLeod, ‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ (2011)

‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ was originally published in Litmus, an anthology of stories concerning key moments of scientific discovery. Denis Noble is Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford, and pioneered virtual modelling of the human heart; he acted as an adviser to Alison MacLeod on the telling of this story, which sees a fictional Noble undergo a heart transplant, and dramatises episodes from the scientist’s earlier life and career.

I think this is a beautifully balanced piece of fiction. By turns, MacLeod’s prose has the precision of detail one would expect from a scientist’s viewpoint; and some wonderfully poetic moments, such as this, describing Noble’s earliest development:

Soon, the tube that was Denis Noble’s heart, a delicate scrap of mesoderm, would push towards life. In the dark of Ethel [Noble’s mother], it would twist and grope, looping blindly back towards itself in the primitive knowledge that circulation, the vital whoosh of life, deplores a straight line.

The story conveys both a sense of the demanding nature of Noble’s work (the computer he needs to use is only available between two and four in the morning, then it’s off to the slaughterhouse to buy a couple of sheeps’ hearts, before a twelve-hour day in the lab), and the scientist’s frustration at not being able to apprehend the true nature of love, for all his knowledge (“Where, he’d like to know, is love? How is love?”).

I could see this piece as an award-winner. Certainly it sets the bar high for the eventual runner-up and winner, both of which I’ve yet to read.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.

Book notes: Hershman, MacLeod, Galloway

Tania Hershman, The White Road and Other Stories (2008)

One of the good things about short story collections is that they help give shape to an author’s work as a whole in a way that’s not necessarily apparent from individual pieces in isolation. Reading The White Road, I gain a sense of two main strands running through Hershman’s short fiction: first, there are a considerable number of short-shorts in the book. I think this is a particularly tricky form to do well, because the prose has to be so much denser to have impact; the short-shorts in Hershman’s collection are amongst the strongest I can recall reading, and having them together in the same volume only reinforces that impression.

Perhaps the main concern of the stories in The White Road, however, is science; many pieces begin have an epigraph from New Scientist, the subject of which may then be explored directly or more tangentially. ‘On a Roll’ begins with an epigraph about the randomness underpinning casino games, then tells of a woman who first has a dream in which she puts up an expensive pair of shoes as a stake at the roulette table, then seeks to enact her dream in reality; it’s a study of how the protagonist’s understanding of randomness enables her to make peace with her life.

‘My Name Is Henry’ employs a fairly straightforward reverse chronological structure to great effect, as it depicts a young man who knows his name, and goes backwards in time to uncover the cause of his amnesia; that progression is both affecting and chilling. The story ‘The White Road’ is set at a truck stop on the way to the South Pole, whose owner, Mags, travelled down there to escape a tragedy in her past; when that tragedy catches up with her, she knows it’s time to take drastic action. As so often in this collection, the human story is firmly to the fore; but the scientific underpinning gives the tale an added dimension of inevitability.

Tania Hershman’s website
Salt Publishing

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (2007)

As the title suggests, the stories in this collection are populated mainly by lovers, at various stages of their relationships. Macleod’s tales are at their most striking for me when organised around a central metaphor or structure; for example ‘so that the land was darkened’ portrays a couple at three moments of literal darkness, showing the different moods of their relationship: the rush of new love during the 1999 eclipse; tension during a power cut in Toronto in 2003; and a realisation of deep love and concern after the London bombings of 2005. ‘Radiant Heat ’focuses alternately on a physicist taking a flight to a conference, and a long-haulage driver joining the effort to wreckage of the physicist’s plane. The concept of entropy, of heat in the universe dissipating, becomes a metaphor for the trajectory of the scientist’s marriage; and the contrast between the two strands of the story creates a real poignancy.

Elsewhere in the collection, ‘Sacred Heart’ is an effective portrait of a nineteen-year-old Naomi’s confused feelings towards the man who (she believes) died whilst sitting beside her on a park bench; she can’t decide whether she was  attracted or repelled by his earlier advances, and the ebb and flow of this is very well realised. The protagonist of ‘The Will Writer’ is single, but dreams of sitting alongside his ideal woman in the SUV he’ll buy if his lottery numbers come up. Over the course of the story, his work brings him into with various couples, and the degrees of contentment they have in their relationships mirror the fortunes of the will writer’s own life, with the hoped-for lottery win seeming by turns a possibility and a distant dream; MacLeod makes this a fine character study.

Janice Galloway, Blood (1991)

The tales in Blood take real life and filter it through dense, sometimes fragmented prose, until it becomes… more concentrated, one might say. In the title story, for example, a girl has her tooth removed by the dentist, and her desire to stanch the bleeding comes to represent something of a wish to hold herself in, as it were. ‘Plastering the Cracks’ begins with the straightforward premise of a woman calling in workmen to repair a room, but treats its material with a twist of absurdity, as the builders move in and communicate with the woman only through notes.

The piece ’two fragments’ deals directly with the idea of ‘inflating’ reality, as it contrasts the ways in which a father lost two fingers and a grandmother one of her eyes, with the outlandish explanations given to the narrator as a child. ‘Love in a changing environment’ pushes its subject slightly out of reality in a slightly different way, as it depicts the ups and downs of a couple’s relationship being affected by the changing nature of the shop above which they live. A series of pieces called ‘Scenes from the Life’ depict various situations, such as a father’s harsh life-lesson to his son, and an elderly woman’s appointment with a health visitor, as theatrical scenes, which puts distance between reader and action in a thought-provoking way.

Janice Galloway’s website

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