The American Lover
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.