A Canadian cabin. Photo: Getty
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The end of the affair: Rose Tremain’s The American Lover reviewed

The protagonists of Rose Tremain’s fifth collection of short stories – her first since 2005’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – are all operating under some form of constraint: social, sexual, emotional, pressingly immediate or far distant, unrelentingly real or garlanded with imaginative flourishes.

The American Lover 
Rose Tremain
Chatto & Windus, 232pp, £16.99

The protagonists of Rose Tremain’s fifth collection of short stories – her first since 2005’s The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – are all operating under some form of constraint: social, sexual, emotional, pressingly immediate or far distant, unrelentingly real or garlanded with imaginative flourishes. The ways they either attempt to free themselves or come to terms with the limits of their situation are often unexpected and always distinct from one another, giving the 13 pieces here a deeply enjoyable variety of tone and attitude.

This is hardly surprising given the range of Tremain’s novels, taking us from the time of King Charles II (Restoration and Merivel, themselves separated by nearly 25 years) to 19th-century New Zealand (The Colour) and, in the Orange Prize-winning The Road Home, to the London of the contemporary economic migrant. In long and short form, her work can move from portents of tragedy to comic vignette in a moment.

In “A View of Lake Superior in the Fall”, a couple in the first flush of retirement flee their Nashville home for a summer cabin in Canada, not from a generalised desire for tranquillity but specifically to escape the unpredictable rampages of their daughter, her “crazy and never-ending carnival of woe”. The inversion is clear: parents running away, unconditional love proved painfully conditional, a fair-weather retreat as a home for all seasons. We know that disaster is probably looming, but not its direction of travel – an uncomfortable sensation that Tremain is expert at manipulating.

It resurfaces in entirely different circumstances in “Extra Geography”, in which two teenage girls at a British boarding school attempt to stave off the boredom occasioned by the end of the lacrosse season. “We weren’t heroines any more,” confides the narrator, “just ordinary girls, and this felt worrying, as though we might soon die.” Their impending and premature deaths are unlikely to become a reality, but provide a fantasy strong enough to wreak havoc when they refocus their energy on wooing a teacher from New Zealand whose exotic foreignness overrides her chunky ankles. “We thought we’d start by being romantic and courtly,” they decide, with little knowledge of what that might really mean.

The concept of allure is explored at greater length in the collection’s title story, in which the invalid Beth lies recuperating in her parents’ London flat. Her legs have been broken in a car crash, and she wonders if “they might resemble the legs of a home-made rag doll, or those floppy limbs the women seem to have in paintings by Chagall, and that forever more, she would have to be carried through life in the arms of people who were whole”. But her imagination is even more vividly engaged by recalling a past love affair and recounting it to her Portuguese maid.

It is, on one level, the straightforward story of a married man who dallies and then disappears, but for Beth the affair has reached near-mythical status, helped by the riches that she won, and then lost, by writing a novel about it. Her fictional alter ego was “the smart top-copy of a person now, and I’m the carbon, messed up and fragile and half invisible”. For the maid, Rosalita, who once made costumes for matadors and whose brother was killed by a bull, real damage is corporeal – she can comprehend Beth’s broken legs but has more difficulty with her smashed-up soul – and the opposition between reality and fable is further underlined by the story’s 1974, three-day-week setting, in which a power cut, rather than romance, would prompt the lighting of candles.

Beth’s fictional portrayal of her relationship is, in one important respect, ineffec­tive; it does not bring her lover back to her. Elsewhere, Tremain turns her attention to the power of the written word and the writer, most notably in “The Jester of Astapovo”, which re-creates the days leading up to the death of Tolstoy, and in “The Housekeeper”, which imagines the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers. In the former story, the “jester” is Ivan Andreyevich Ozolin, master of the tiny rural station at which Tolstoy is forced to stop by mortal illness. The writer has been in flight from his wife and Ivan, too, understands marital disharmony: he has become entranced by an older woman and would love to escape the wife who never laughs at his jokes. The episode provides him with an unexpected moment in the limelight – as the world (and Tolstoy’s wife) descends on Astapovo, events become tinged with farce – and a springboard to action.

“The Housekeeper”, a truly chilling tale, could almost be seen as that story’s negative, in which the arrival of the writer, and her appropriation of the stories of those she meets, leave her one-time lover with nothing but memories and a fur coat. Such, Tremain appears to intimate, might be the perils of tangling with a person dedicated to seeing and recording everything. In these wide-ranging stories – playful, elaborate, but never showy, not even when they involve recasting Romeo and Juliet as a passionate affair between a Sloaney PR girl and her Moldavian builder – she allows her readers to feel similarly imperilled but, mercifully, unobserved. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.