Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Jane Gardam’s Going into a Dark House (1994)

Jane Gardam’s Going into a Dark House
Little Brown 1994

Jane Gardam is one of my MRE authors, having discovered Bilgewater a few years back, and this collection also counts for the 2010 Reading Challenge (in the Charity Shop category, because my friend Helen picked it up at the Oxfam Shop and sent it over to me, knowing my Gardam obsession). It’s been too long since I read something of this author’s oeuvre (2007, Old Filth), so this was a terrific excuse to pull her work off the shelf.

One of the things that I especially enjoyed about Going into a Dark House was the consistent sense of satisfaction after each story. I spread them out over a month’s time and made sure not to rush. Even if I wanted to read on, after reading one of the stories, I forced myself to set the collection aside and pick up something else instead, which added to my sense of satisfaction I think.

It felt like reading an Alice Munro collection, I just wanted to “have” the next story, not even caring about subject or style, only wanting her voice, the sometimes-cozy and sometimes-eerie and sometimes-ironic resolutions that she offers at their conclusions.

One of my favourite stories was “The Damascus Plum” which considers the way in which one shares one’s home, one’s pleasures, and one’s foibles in the context of a brief, imposed intimacy, and not only the differing ways in which two people can experience the same events, but the impact of memory on impressions of that shared experience.

For the most part, it’s the overall construction and execution of her stories that I appreciate, but sometimes a bit of language jumps out. Here are two bits from “The Damascus Plum”.

“Stray cabbages after the harvest roll about at the field sides like severed heads after a revolution.” In a story which considers national identity and the way that visitors can interpret a country on the basis of a brief exposure, this is a particularly poignant description.

“The tall boy, holding the latch, between the roses, stood spotty, rebellious, leathern-lidded, sullen-eyed, limp-handed and so sadly thin he seemed concave. I thought he looked at me with distaste but then thought perhaps it was misery.”

This is not a representative quote; Gardam’s language is more often as appears in the quote above, but sometimes a sentence is stuffed with this kind of detail. It happens rarely enough that I have no problem slipping back to pause at each adjective.

My favourite phrase therein is the bit about his looking so thin as to appear concave, not only because it’s evocative, but because coming at the end of that string it feels like you can’t help but have a complete image of the boy. And then she follows up with the distaste/misery bit, which I do think representative of Gardam’s work, the emphasis on observation, the potential for misunderstanding and miscommunication between people, the too-often-sad ironies that characterize human relationships.

If you’ve enjoyed Jane Gardam’s novels, try some of her short stories: I think you’ll be surprised to find yourself enjoying them every bit as much.

How about you? Do you have some Jane Gardam works in your reading history, or on your TBR list, or stacked on the bedside table?

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7 comments to Jane Gardam’s Going into a Dark House (1994)

  • Sigh, I love your blog but my TBR list has grown too much since I started following your reviews! I love Alice Munro’s stories so this book will definitely have its place on my list. Great review as always!

  • I’m reading Old Filth at the moment–it’s a book I’ved hemmed and hawed about for ages as it was a recommendation but I was never sure it was really something I’d like. It turns out I like it very much and have the sequel on hand as well. I’ll have to try her short stories–I like an author who’s so good you don’t even mind what they write about–you just know you’ll like it because they have such great style.

  • When I visited a friend in Minneapolis, the cashier at a bookstore recommended Gardam to us both and she has been on my wishlist since then, though I haven’t gotten around to reading her yet. I like keeping her under the lid as an unexpected delight 🙂

  • Kat

    I love Jane Gardam and have never tried her short stories! This opens a whole new world for me. So thanks for blogging.

  • Thanks for the comments!

    Olduvai, I’m not sorry at all to be a strain on your TBR list. ::grin:: The other reason she reminds me of Alice Munro is that Munro has a real Canadian feel to her for me, and Gardam has a real English feel, and yet their themes are universal and expansive.

    Danielle, I have the sequel/companion on my list too, but I’m finding myself drawn more to her stories right now. Which is a bit unusual, as I usually gravitate to novels out of habit. I’ve been eyeing The People on Privilege Hill.

    Aarti, I like keeping some others “under the lid” too. I have Julie Orringer and Jane Mendelsohn on that status: I’ve heard lots of good things and have every confidence I’ll enjoy them.

    Kat, I think you’ll enjoy them a great deal. I’m also aiming for her Queen of the Tamborine later this year, but really feel the story bug just now. Maybe it’s the intense heat and my resultant attention span!

  • I read one of her books, Queen of the Tamborine, but I hate descent-into-madness books and couldn’t enjoy it. Europa recently inexplicably sent me two of her books in the post (seriously, I have no idea why), so she’s on my TBR pile now!

  • Jenny – I would definitely try another then…perhaps one of the two you’ve received…I think you’d enjoy her work.

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