Fourteen stories published over four decades offer an agreeable supplement to the distinguished British novelist’s full-length fiction (The Sea Lady, 2007, etc.).
The early pieces from the 1960s show Drabble’s (The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, 2009, etc.) smooth, reflective prose style already well developed as she focuses on the difficulties of marriage and the temptations of infidelity. "Hassan’s Tower” is a grimly funny tale of a couple already mired in mutual hostility while honeymooning in Morocco; the overseas journey of adulterous lovers in “Crossing the Alps” is nearly as disastrous, for different reasons. The title story (the collection’s best) echoes the feminism-tinged novels in which Drabble reached her prime (Jerusalem the Golden, 1967; The Needle’s Eye, 1972), thoughtfully exploring the life of a modern woman prompted by a cancer scare to reconsider her complicated juggling of commitments to work, a difficult husband and her adored children. Similar ground is covered with even more bite in “Homework,” narrated by the envious, sniping “friend” of a successful but overstressed career woman. The sharp social consciousness that became an increasing feature of Drabble’s work beginning with The Ice Age (1977) is less evident in her short fiction, although “The Gifts of War” stingingly juxtaposes a beleaguered working-class mother with two patronizing student protestors, and the linked stories “The Dower House at Kellynch: A Somerset Romance” and “Stepping Westward: A Topographical Tale” show middle-class women encountering glamorous representatives of the English landed gentry. Drabble can be acid, as when a woman unforgivingly recalls her dead husband’s many petty cruelties in “The Merry Widow,” but more often her tone is warm. “The Caves of God,” which closes with the protagonist’s tender reunion with her ex-husband more than a decade after their divorce, is characteristically gentle about human failings and hopeful about the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.
Nothing revelatory, but Drabble’s fans will savor these bite-sized examples of her humane intelligence.