THE MEANS OF ESCAPE by Penelope Fitzgerald
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From the late, illustrious Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower, The Bookshop, both 1997, etc.), a volume of stories that will disappoint the great novelist’s readers only by the fact of its being so slender.

Not all eight of the pieces here are equally ambitious, but all rise to the standard of deftness, accuracy, and grace that marks them as Fitzgerald's, whether she's writing of the 17th century or the 20th. Or, for that matter, the 19th, as in the title (and first) story, about a rector's daughter in 1852 Australia whose one doomed chance at love (and escape) is with a fleeing convict. The fierceness of poverty and rank, and the stumbling beginnings of modern medicine in Istanbul near the start of the 20th century (“The Prescription”), are rendered with equally few and economical strokes; and in “Desideratus,” the same can be said also of rural England in the 17th century, as a boy from a poor household briefly meets high rank as he retrieves—in a most eerie way—a lost medal, given him as a gift. Among the most wonderful here are “Beehernz” (a music festival director in England tries to bring an ancient erstwhile conductor of Mahler back from an eccentric and isolated retirement); “The Red-Haired Girl” (an English art student learns about sympathy and failure—his own—on an 1882 painting trip to France; and “The Axe,” a perfectly toned description of a Bartleby-like figure though in a modern British corporation. A conflict in character may lead—well, to almost anything in “Not Shown,” about a country estate open to visitors, and about the administrative assistant there who wants to keep his own life intact. Less a story than extended anecdote, “At Hiruharama” nevertheless grips and enchants in its description of a 19th-century farm couple in remote New Zealand, and what happens when childbirth comes.

Everything that Fitzgerald touches here, large or small, turns quietly to gold.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 2000
ISBN: 0-618-07994-7
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2000


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