A retrospective collection of 27 stories, written over a period of more than half a century, by a southern writer whose best fiction merits comparison with the work of Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty.
This is a much more rigorously selective, and hence more satisfying, volume than the 1981 Stories of Elizabeth Spencer—if only because it omits her tepid, meandering novella “Knights & Dragons,” substituting for it “The Light in the Piazza,” perhaps her most triumphantly Jamesian contrast of American and European manners and morals. Simultaneously, it’s an augmented version containing six previously uncollected stories, the finest of which offer fresh variations on Spencer’s central preoccupation: women’s inner lives and the secrets they harbor, and sometimes uncover. Especially effective are “The Legacy,” about an inheritance that encourages a lonely young disabled woman’s gesture of independence; “The Master of Shongalo,” in which a spinster teacher visits the lavish home of an adoring student’s family—and stumbles over the skeletons in its roomy closets; and “Owl,” which reveals in a terse four pages a neglected wife’s submerged erotic longings. The other 21 stories are grouped geographically, according to the three places (the American South, Italy, and eastern Canada) where virtually all of Spencer’s fiction is set—and showcase her graceful prose and impressive descriptive powers as they explore her characteristic themes: racial tensions in (her native) Mississippi and thereabouts (“The Little Brown Girl”); romantic and sexual fixation (“Ship Island,” “The Girl Who Loved Horses”); crippling psychological disturbances (“The Finder,” “First Dark”), and compact social studies in which the attitudes of the Old South are tested by the pressures of other cultures (“I, Maureen,” “The White Azalea”).
An excellent introduction to a substantial and distinctive oeuvre, and a welcome reminder of how good this often underrated writer can be.