A British newcomer details the often melodramatic outcomes of deception, innocent and malicious, in four tales that seem more echoes of the past than soundings of the present.
In each, the denouement offers an old-fashioned twist: a technique that is most effective in the first and best, least in the third. Simone Strachey, the narrator of the “Island of the Day Before Yesterday,” is a complacent academic who lives in Italy with his aristocratic wife in the well-appointed castle he inherited from his Italian mother. A semiotician, he begins his story by blaming Umberto Eco, “who had brought a temporary glamour to the otherwise forgettable concept of an ‘Italian semiotician,’’’ for what he does after his English father dies. While he’s in London sorting out that father’s estate—he was a man of action with a gift for writing, author of a series of popular books—Strachey is approached by a journalist who wants to write about his family. Strachey agrees but enlists his homely secretary to play a trick on the journalist—a trick that inevitably backfires with far-reaching consequences. The second novella, “Law and Order,” is set in Holland and narrated by Hendrik, a wealthy college student who records his concerns as his twin brother falls under the nihilist influence of a professor, and begins carrying a gun. In the Kiplingesque “The Colonel and Judy O’Grady,” an Irishwoman, who became a Buddhist nun and is now working in Scotland, tells a young lesbian graduate student of her encounter, in Simla, India, with a kindly colonel, who was not what he seemed. And last, “Crossing the Water,” is narrated by a free-loading and louche art dealer, temporarily estranged from his lawyer wife, who records a country-house prank—the theft from a nearby cousin’s home of a famous painting—that goes horribly wrong.
Well-crafted, oddly dated.