Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black: a literary and rather grim collection

From the blind girl who sees more than her parents can, to the portrait artist who sees more than her clients might wish, Robin Black illuminates secret fears, hidden desires, profound grief and enduring love in a collection as rich and varied as the relationships it describes. These are generous and compassionate stories for anyone attuned to the intricate heartbreak of families – to our power to hurt and to nurture those we love best.

My goodness, that’s some blurb. And I have to say it’s all perfectly accurate. These are highly literary, accessible and top-notch stories which prove to be very satisfying indeed to read. But oh how I wish the blurb had emphasised exactly how terribly grim they are. Several times during my reading of the book, I had to put the whole thing to one side and look at something far cheerier. Anything really. Not to say that Black doesn’t write like a dream, because she does and I was never anything less than deeply moved by her writing. However, unless you are a die-hard optimist and nothing will shake you from that stance ever, then I suggest that you only read one story at a time, and add a chick-lit chaser in between times. Because I definitely encourage you to buy it.

Funnily enough, the story I think is the weakest offering (and it’s still pretty strong indeed – a fact which should give you an idea as to just how classy this book is) is the first one about the blind girl: “The Guide” left me feeling a little confused about Lila, the girl, although I did love her father Jack and his musings about his mistress and his upcoming marital break-up. I’m not sure how things actually did tie together at the end, particularly as Bess the dog-owner was really rather strange. On the other hand, I suspect that is exactly how I’m supposed to feel: a sighted person trying to come to terms with the world of the blind.

For me, the collection thoroughly hit its stride with the second story, “If I Loved You”. This takes the progressive terminal illness of the main character and contrasts it with the practical and stalwart greed of her neighbour. It’s both lyrical and hard-hitting, and I was especially taken by the woman’s concern for the welfare of her husband after she herself is gone.

Later, as an admirer of artists, I found myself hooked by the experiences of painter Clara in “Immortalizing John Parker” as she tries to capture the likeness of a man whose personality, for a variety of reasons, she can never truly discover. Blended with this are the subtle rises and falls of the relationship between John Parker and his wife, and that between Clara and her ex-husband. Both, in different ways, delicately show the state of two very different marriages at two very different points on the scale. I loved it.

Next to these tales of relationships and change from the viewpoint of adults, the story “Harriet Elliot” comes as a surprise, but it still very definitely fits the mood. Harriet is a schoolgirl whose arrival at a new school changes everything for the main character. The tale Harriet tells her classmates – which may or may not be true – sets in motion a series of events and experiences which sweep us from loyalty to betrayal and disappointment, and back again. It was fascinating to get a child’s view of the battleground of childhood and how people survive it.

With “Tableau Vivant”, we are once again in the closed-in world of marriage, and I thoroughly enjoyed the voice of the main character, a woman in her late sixties. Cleverly, Black makes her, for good reasons, something of an outsider to her own marriage and family life, though she’s utterly committed to both these. The fact that she slips easily between love and impartial insight into those closest to her rings very true. Many women, myself included, can vouch for that. Moreover, the use of the Winchester roses in the garden, and how some of them survive whilst others appear to be lost, is a subtle mirror to what is going on in the characters’ lives. I’m always open to a touch of pathetic fallacy.

The remainder of the stories take similar themes to the above, but each creates its own world in a sharp and mostly believable way. My favourite however has to be “A Country Where You Once Lived”, even in spite of the rather muddled nature of the closing pages. I loved the male narrator and his insight into his first marriage, the way he tries to connect with his daughter once more and that final and strangely uplifting acceptance of the need to move on into his new and more equal relationship.

So, a top-class collection of stories, and well worth your time. But be prepared to be saddened and to still be thinking about the characters and their experiences for quite some while after.

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Picador 2010, ISBN 978-0330 511797
Also available as an ebook

[Anne loves short stories and wishes more people would publish them as she simply can never have enough. Her own latest collection is The Betrayal of Birds]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at: www.annebrooke.com, www.gayreads.co.uk, www.biblicalfiction.co.uk and www.gathandria.com (for fantasy fiction).

5 comments on “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black: a literary and rather grim collection

  1. Kate
    October 25, 2012

    Oei. The title alone is a bit of a stunner, stops you in your tracks. But I do like your advice about having a chick-lit chaser in between, very sound!

  2. robin black
    October 25, 2012

    Hi, Robin Black here. Just wanted to thank you for this terrific and thoughtful review. Also, thought you’d be amused (maybe?) to know that I always thought it should be published with a warning label: Take Only As Directed: Read 1 Per Week – for exactly that reason. The stories were written over eight years, separately, and I think for a lot of people it IS a tough few days to read them straight through. Throw in some comedy for sure! Life is a mix, after all.

    Again, many thanks for your time and care with the book! I really appreciate your kind words.

    all best,

    Robin

  3. annebrooke
    October 25, 2012

    Thanks, Kate – great idea! And many thanks for the comments, Robin – lovely to hear from you, and I hope there’ll be more soon!

    Anne
    xxx

  4. Jackie
    October 26, 2012

    It’s always a thrill when the author stops by, isn’t it? That is so cool.
    These sound like very rich stories & terrific character studies. I like the variety of situations explored and the layers of the characters. I’m going to look for this at library, along with a selection of cheerier alternatives as well.

  5. annebrooke
    October 26, 2012

    Yes indeed, Jackie – you should enjoy these, bearing Robin Black’s warning in mind! :)

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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