The British Gardam (The Queen of the Tambourine, 2007, etc.) excels once again in this collection of 14 wide-ranging stories.
The author corrals a variety of surprising characters, especially the old and the late middle-aged. The ancient dodderers of the title story include Old Filth himself (from Gardam’s 2004 novel of the same name), a guest at a party for a prospective Jesuit monk. Dulcie, the gin-swilling hostess, had fallen for the monk at a cathedral; though her guest mysteriously vanishes, there’s still the promise of rejuvenation for these old codgers, or even love. That’s what the female narrator of “Pangbourne” finds, at her local zoo, as she dotes on a gorilla: “I knew him for a gentle beast.” She’s a sympathetic old dear, unlike the grizzled pessimists in “The Flight Path,” a cautionary tale about givers and getters set in London in 1941 during the Blitz. Wartime London is grippingly evoked, and Gardam settles the fate of this grim crew with a charming ruthlessness; some complacent nobodies in “Babette” (in which a forgotten novelist leads her discerning reviewer to hidden treasures) are also summarily dispatched. The author demonstrates her range in “Waiting for a Stranger,” a shivery Halloween story alive with tricks and treats and racial ill-will; “The Virgins of Bruges,” in which a Parisian nun, looking for sanctuary in an unfamiliar city, stumbles onto a nightmarish scene, a church converted into a druggy nightclub; and “Snap,” the story of a heroically faithful wife whose one night of adultery ends with a broken ankle. Gardam’s technical proficiency doesn’t always hold up. A mother, a daughter, the daughter’s best friend and a hairdresser compete for attention in the overcrowded “The Hair of the Dog”; and point-of-view switches make “The Fledgling” (18-year-old leaves home for college) rather awkward. But she navigates the passage of time skillfully in “The Last Reunion.” Here four women come together for a college reunion after 40 years, and lyrical memories collide painfully with present reality.
Gardam’s brisk narration and fearless temperament make for serious fun.