Gathered from six earlier collections, spanning more than three decades, 28 stories from the redoubtable English writer.
A youngish mother on a faraway beach. Staring into the water, a stranger with a familiar back. It’s Heneker! Ten years before, in London, Hetty had been his art student and mistress. Now she’s happily married and Heneker is a famous painter. Together they explore a painful paradox, leavened with humor: They’re soul mates but incompatible ("Hetty Sleeping"). Nancy and Clancy are soul mates, too, but there’s no humor attending these childhood sweethearts, for their future is darkened by heartbreak ("The Boy who Turned into a Bike"). Gardam’s stories range widely. She’s as good with the very old ("Old Filth," a postscript to her same-titled novel) as the very young ("Swan"). The upper classes, observed with a beady eye, come off unattractively: mean-spirited, oblivious to suffering ("The Tribute" and "Miss Mistletoe"). Gardam doesn't fare as well with the deeply depressed: "Rode by all with Pride" and "Damage" are uncharacteristically labored. She writes ghost stories with flair ("A Spot of Gothic," "Soul Mates") but is less successful with fantasy ("The Green Man," "The Zoo at Christmas"). One exception is her delightfully mischievous sequel to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, in which the Little Mermaid’s littlest sister decides to check out the prince for herself. Her verdict? “Men aren’t worth it” ("The Pangs of Love"). In somewhat different territory there’s "Grace," about a man with a diamond under his skin; it’s a tall tale that’s markedly less tall by the end. The most attention-getting story is "The Sidmouth Letters": A hustling American academic is hot to buy correspondence which may provide a peek into Jane Austen’s private life, but a relative of the woman who owns the letters beats him to the punch. What happens next will thrill some Janeites and appall others.
A rich haul from a well of talent.