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?