What's It Like Out? / Penelope Gilliatt
London: Virago, 1989, c1968.
And here's another Penelope, but one who was new to me (after Penelopes Lively, Fitzgerald & Mortimer).
This collection of 9 short stories was a welcome surprise. Clever, sharp, these stories were first published in the New Yorker in the mid sixties. If you don't think you like short stories, try these ones. Short and to the point, odd and eccentric, funny, acerbic, dark -- there is a bit of everything in them to interest a reader.
Gilliatt certainly sees with the eye of a British eccentric -- there are so many characters or settings, or social mores, here that seem familiar from other English women writers of the same time. But she still sees things in her own way, and makes you see them too. She has a wry sense of humour and a skill for sharp characterization.
My favourite story was "The Redhead". Very short, it covers a whole life in just over a dozen pages. Harriet is born red-headed and recalcitrant. Her parents don't like or understand her, she hardly understands herself; she alienates friends, coworkers etc by her abrasive personality (she might say in current days that she's only "keeping it real").
When she's a child her "lavender scented" Victorian mother begins to dislike her. Gilliatt says, "Mrs. Buckingham's dislike gave Harriet a sort of bristling resilience. She had from the beginning an immunity to other people's opinion of her, which isn't a characteristic that is much liked in women."
There are many quotable observations like this one throughout the book.
All of these stories deal with odd characters or unusual moments in their lives, generally to do with relationships in some way. Like Katherine Mansfield's short stories, I felt that these stories don't necessarily conclude as much as just end at a certain point. It's pleasantly discombobulating, leaving things open-ended with characters who are so unusual that they might go on to do just about anything. But what? We will never know.
Definitely a great discovery, this is prickly strange reading. It is full of energy and unexpected turns, by an author looking at life at a slant. If you're interested in seeing how short stories can engage and surprise a reader, definitely try this collection out.