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.
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