Drown by Junot Diaz

Drown

Diaz’s first short story collection, Drown, was published back in 1996. I read his later collection, This Is How You Lose Her, last year and both books showcase Diaz’s writing in a similar way. They even share a character, Yunior.

These ten stories are rooted in the immigrant experience, from surviving in the barrios of Santo Domingo to adjusting to life in New Jersey. Diaz writes in a style that is unique, not afraid to use a generous amount of Spanish throughout (there is a glossary at the back but I found that high school Spanish was enough, and often the meanings were easily deduced from the context of the sentence). I read these stories wondering how much material is actually autobiographical, so authentic are the sentences Diaz puts together. Images are vibrant, and it is unapologetic writing. This is how people behave, and if it makes them unsympathetic who cares because that’s how they live.

This is a strong collection, but there were a few stories that I didn’t really engage in – generally these are those which focus on a male protagonist lusting after some girl or another (a theme which I felt Diaz had become stronger on by the time he got round to This Is How…). I probably wouldn’t rush to reread Boyfriend or How to Date… I fell in love with Negocios, the tale of the protagonist’s father leaving the Dominican Republic and making his way to New York via Miami. It links up with earlier stories, explaining what Ramon did when he left his family, those years before he finally flies them over to join him.

To sum things up, if you like short stories but quite like a common thread and love authors with strong voices, this is for you.

Lust by Roald Dahl

lust

I love Roald Dahl’s adult short stories. These four new editions are categorised: Lust, Deception, Madness and Cruelty being the themes  (though from this edition alone I can say that all four are fully represented within). In this volume are ten tales of ‘craving and desire’, mostly with a dark twist, and often funny.

Each story is prefaced by its original date of publication, and the magazine or collection in which it featured. I found it interesting that several of Dahl’s stories were originally published in Playboy, not prominent in my mind as a source of literary fiction but there you go… those four stories were probably the most explicit in the book (for the 1960s at least, in today’s climate they would be still quite restrained.

Two of my favourite stories concerned the same character. The unnamed narrator is sent a crate filled with beautifully bound books, twenty eight volumes that turn out to be his long-lost uncle’s diaries. In lieu of a financial inheritance, his uncle has left him these but warns that to publish them would mean ruin, despite any monies made through their sale. Uncle Oswald turns out to be a man who would make Casanova look like a prude, and the diaries are his detailed accounts of every seduction and adventure he has taken on his many travels. Interestingly,  Oswald doesn’t always get exactly his own way, which makes him a rather more sympathetic character than he deserves:

I myself have never, absolutely never permitted an intimate relationship to last for more than twelve hours. That is the furthest limit. Even eight hours is stretching it a bit, to my mind.

Oswald’s attitudes towards women are not unusual amongst the male characters in the book. I would say that you need to keep in mind that these stories were published between 1945 and 1974. They reflect accepted attitudes of those times. Women in these stories are wives, assistants, rarely a main character. Those women who do show strength are generally cut down, though the men too get their comeuppance. Reading these in a historical context, I didn’t find them too offensive, though The Great Switcheroo (next door neighbours decide on a scheme to wife swap – without telling their wives) came close.

For anyone who loves a good book cover, the artwork on these editions is also exquisite, created by British artist Charming Baker with the themes in mind. I might just add the other three to my bookshelf before long.

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Five

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Missed the last instalment? The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

Maria barely slept that night. She lay on her bed, listening for a while to Celine weeping in the bedroom above that she shared with Daniel, to Daniel’s soft placations as he apologised for upsetting his wife. When Celine gave in and forgave him she buried her head in the pillow, blocking out the sounds that followed.

Breakfast the next morning was taken in her sitting room, a little alcove off her bedroom that had been built as a gentleman’s dressing room. Sam had never shared her room for more than the odd night and so she had turned it to good use. Sally brought her toast and a pot of coffee each morning at eight, never later.

She was just draining her cup when Sam called on her looking sheepish. She had never removed the second chair from the table, more to stop the maids gossiping rather than out of hope that Sam would join her more regularly. She gestured for him to sit.

‘I came to apologise.’ He sat down and poured himself coffee, unable to meet her surprised gaze.

‘Thank you.’

‘I’m tired.’ He shook his head. ‘All of this…if it is affecting you even half as much as it is me then I pity you. I don’t know why I was so angry last night, only…it is a strain, having the pair of them rely on me. I love Daniel like a brother, but I am never free of him!’ He laughed but the sound was not true.

‘They’ll be gone soon enough. I think that Celine is desperate to set up home.’

‘Yes.’ He took a sip of coffee and she knew he was steadying himself to speak. ‘Maria, I know that this is an odd situation for both of us. I, for one, am set to make this work as best it can, for the good of our child if nothing else.’

‘And what does David say?’ Maria asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m no fool, Sam. I see how you are and I see how he looks at me, like he’d like me to disappear. Or perhaps he hopes that childbirth will prove costly for me.’

‘Maria, he means you no ill harm, I’m sure.’ He did not look convinced. ‘Perhaps we could go away, just the two of us. I will leave David here in London, you can leave your maid, Sally, is it? We can go down to Ramsgate for the week, and get to know each other properly. We could talk for once, properly, like we are now. We used to be friends, Maria, and it seems that we never talk like we used to.’

‘Do you mean it?’

‘Yes. I can make the arrangement s today and we can leave in two days’ time, as soon as I can ensure that all is taken care of at the Olympia.’

‘I would like that very much.’ She smiled, and it felt strange, unusual, her facial muscles surprised.

Sam looked pleased with himself and hurried off to put his plan into action. Maria took her cup to the window and looked out, pressing her forehead against the cool glass of the window pane. Below her in Eaton Square the trees were brown and gold, their leaves casually falling as they saw fit and creating a carpet beneath them.

 

 

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

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The husbands arrived back late on a Wednesday, their arrival heralded by Celine’s happy laughter as she ran downstairs to greet Daniel. Maria had not thought to bother going downstairs but did not want David to look upon her with that look of his. Her husband’s valet was far too overfamiliar with him, and thought himself worse off to have saddled himself with such a useless wife. Not so very useless, she thought. At least she could provide Sam with an heir.

‘Daniel, you will never in a thousand years guess what I have done,’ Celine told him proudly.

‘Something incredible I am sure.’ He let her lead him into the drawing room where the maid was frantically laying a fire.

‘I have found us a cook! For our new house.’ She was dressed in her nightgown and robe, and when she perched on the sofa she looked like a child, her hair in a long plait that almost reached her waist.

‘And what new house would that be?’ Daniel joked. ‘I have been gone not two weeks and you have been busy without me.’

‘Well, obviously there is no new house as of yet, but our cook can wait for us, and we won’t have to wait too long will we, my love?’

‘Who is this cook?’ Sam asked. ‘In my experience any staff worth having are like gold dust – they do not wait around for houses to be rented.’

‘Ah, well that is the beauty of it,’ Celine informed him. ‘She is from the Magdalen! They have said that she can stay so long as she is gone by year end.’

‘The Magdalen?’ Maria could feel Sam’s eyes on her as he spoke. ‘Maria?’

‘Well, why on earth not? It is a good cause and those poor women are in need our forgiveness, not our judgement,’ she retorted.

‘What is this place?’ Daniel asked Celine, who sat back suddenly.

‘Well it is a place for women who have fallen on hard times,’ she told him.

‘It’s a charity for whores,’ Sam corrected her. ‘Your wife has secured the services of a former streetwalker as your new cook.’

‘How dare you!’ Celine was suddenly furious. ‘You have not even met her. Ruth Simpson is a kind and meek woman and she has excellent cookery skills. We tried her meat pie, Maria and I, and it was as good as anything that I have tried from your own kitchen.’

‘Do I understand this correctly? Sam, your wife took mine to a whorehouse?’ Daniel stood and Maria took a step back when she saw the look on his face.

‘It is not such thing!’ Celine stood herself. ‘Don’t you dare blame Maria. She has been my only friend since you left me here on my own.’ She stormed off, Daniel in close pursuit of her.

Maria breathed a sigh of relief. She had thought Celine to be just the usual easily swayed upper class girl that she had grown up with, but she had proved herself on several occasions now.

‘What is wrong with you?’ Maria turned to look at Sam in surprise. There was a vehemence in his voice that had never been there before.

‘She was lonely. She felt shunned and I thought that she would be cheered to see that there were women worse off than her. And look – she was happy until you went and made her feel that she had done something wrong!’ Maria turned to leave but he grabbed at her arm.

‘Don’t you dare blame me for this, though you do everything else.’ She tried to wrench away from him but he was too strong, pulling her so close that she could smell brandy and tobacco on his breath. ‘I helped you when no one else would and all you have done is punish me. You are an unhappy woman. You have always been so, and I would not be surprised if this was not some malicious attempt to bring Celine down with you, to drive a wedge between her and Daniel.’

‘Your good intentions are like the leaves on the trees, Sam. They look so fresh in the spring, unfurling and new, but it is only so long before they shrivel and die, getting trampled underfoot.’ He let go of her suddenly and she staggered backwards, catching herself on the arm of the sofa.

Maria pulled herself upright as Sam left without giving her another glance, his valet David at his heels like a faithful old dog. She would have best described the look on David’s face as triumphant.

 

 

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Three

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Missed the beginning of this story?

The Changing of the Leaves – Part One

‘Can you imagine it? Every day the same for the rest of our lives?’ Maria put down her tapestry and addressed Celine. Like every other morning that week they were sitting quietly in the morning room.

‘Well, it won’t be, will it?’ Celine pointed out. ‘You will have the baby in a few months. I hope that Daniel will find us our own home soon and so I will have my own household to arrange.’

‘Your own household,’ Maria repeated, watching Celine carefully. Where did the girl imagine the money was coming from for her new house, her new employees? ‘Has Daniel had any luck with his search?’

Celine shook her head. ‘No, he needed to collect the money for this engagement in Liverpool first. It should pay well enough that we can look at a proper house, not just lodgings.’

‘A good plan. You don’t want to feel that a place is not your own. There is nothing worse!’ Too late Maria realised that her words must sound to Celine as though she were no longer welcome. ‘I mean to say, living with strangers of course.’

‘Of course.’ Celine nodded. ‘And once we are settled I thought it an idea to become involved in a charity. Mrs Harper was on the committees of several and it always seemed such a social enterprise as well as doing good.’

‘Charity,’ Maria mused. ‘Yes, what a good idea! Why do we not get started immediately?’

‘Now?’ Celine looked at the clock. It was five to eleven, almost time for morning tea.

‘What about post luncheon? I have a place which may be happy to see even such outcasts as us.’

And so it was that the intrepid two women arrived at an address in St George’s Fields at three o’clock that very afternoon, not very far from the Olympia theatre.

‘What is this place?’ Celine asked.

‘Forgive my strange sense of humour, but since we are seen as little better than fallen women, I thought that we should perhaps aim to help those who are genuinely in that position.’ Maria saw that Celine looked confused. ‘This is the Magdalen Hospital. They aim to save unfortunate women from prostitution and set them on the right path.’

‘Oh.’ Celine was taken aback. ‘These women, are they…they are safe to be around?’

‘My dear, these are poor women driven into a wretched profession through poverty. They are glad to be here rather than on the streets and shall not harm you.’ Maria took her friend’s arm and walked her up to the front door, pulling on the bell.

A young woman answered, dressed smartly in a black uniform. ‘Good afternoon, can I help you?’

‘Hello there. My name is Mrs Maria McCarthy, this is Mrs Celine Johnson, and we wish to speak with whomever is in charge here.’

‘That would be Doctor Marsden,’ the girl replied, looking the pair up and down in suspicion.

‘And is he available to speak with?’

Wordlessly the girl stepped back to allow the visitors to enter, gesturing for them to take a seat on the ancient sofa which had been placed in the dark hallway. ‘The doctor is very busy but I shall see if he can meet with you.’

‘Well, she doesn’t seem very grateful,’ Maria huffed once they were alone.

‘You think she is one of…them?’ Celine asked in a hushed voice.

‘A former prostitute? Almost definitely. They take the women in and nurse them back to health, teach them skills for the workplace. The more regular workplace I mean, rather than their former profession. The idea is that these women will find work and be able to leave here once they are reformed,’ Maria explained.

‘Ah. It seems a sensible endeavour, ‘Celine agreed. ‘But what is our purpose then? Are we here to offer money?’

‘Actually, I was thinking that this would be the perfect place to acquire you a cook for your new abode. You worry that you know nothing about running a household, Celine. Why not take advantage of this place, full of women who are eager to start afresh, have been trained for service, and who cannot possible judge you?’

Perhaps because these women scared her a little, Celine thought, though she kept her silence, and when the girl returned to escort them to Doctor Marsden’s office she dutifully followed Maria into his office.

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Two

 

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Enter a caption

The sun was shining over Piccadilly as the carriage transported Maria towards her rendezvous. Not a soul knew where she was going excepting one, and she had asked to be dropped at Fortnum and Mason, though that wasn’t her final destination.

Descending to the pavement, Maria let the doorman do his duty and waited until the coachman, Peter, had driven off before slipping back out onto the busy street. It was a short walk to St James’s church. Was it really only just over a year since her wedding had been supposed to take place here? Not her actual wedding to Sam, but the wedding that she had called off, cleaving her family in two and embarrassing her father so that he had retreated from public life.

Maria’s mother waited in a pew to her left as she headed down the aisle that her sister had walked in her place, marrying the man that had been meant for Maria. Catherine McAndrew’s back was rod straight, hat perfectly positioned on her dark hair, striped through now with grey. She did not turn as her daughter approached but waited for her to sit beside her.

‘You’re late.’

‘I’m sorry, Mama. Sam delayed going to the theatre this morning and I had to wait for the carriage to return. I did ask to meet this afternoon.’ She was sure that her mother did this on purpose, making Maria go out of her way to meet up at awkward times, castigating her for being difficult. It was all she deserved, she supposed.

‘Well, you’re here now. Your letter mentioned some news?’

‘Yes Mama. You will be happy to know that you will soon be a grandmother.’ Maria delivered her glad tidings in the same cold manner that her mother had used, gratified to hear the older woman’s sharp inhalation.

‘Maria, that’s wonderful!’ Catherine took her hand and moved herself to face Maria. ‘I’m so happy. Perhaps I may even tell your father. He surely cannot extend this silent treatment to an innocent child. He was so full of joy when your sister…’ She broke off quickly.

‘She is with child also?’ Maria saw the shame in Catherine’s face as she nodded.

‘We only discovered it a few months ago, and of course I did not see you this summer. You were otherwise occupied. Edward told us about the scene at the Harper’s house.’ So quickly it had turned back against Maria!

‘I was helping a good friend who was in dire straits,’ Maria corrected. ‘And it is none of Edward Heaton’s business. I felt an affinity with Celine. She was being forced into an unhappy marriage, just as I was. I could not stand by and watch her life be ruined.’

‘Would your life have been so much unhappier with Edward? He is a successful man and he looks after your sister. I do believe she gives thanks each day that you allowed her this opportunity.’

‘Edward only wanted our family’s money, Mama.’ Maria pulled her hand away. ‘Is it so hard to see? I married Samuel because he wanted nothing from me. He saw how I suffered while you and Papa only wanted to save face. Edward is not a good man.’

Catherine stood. ‘I’m sorry Maria. I came because you are my eldest daughter and I cannot stand for you to throw away your life in a youthful fit of dissatisfaction. Perhaps this child will make you realise just how precious family is.’

Maria bit her tongue. How could she tell her mother now what a dangerous villain Edward Heaton was? Had she spoken earlier then her younger sister would not now be married to the man who had left her battered and bruised, the man who had driven her to marry the first man who came to save her, even though that saviour could never love her.

 

 

The Changing of the Leaves – Part One

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How Papa would laugh if he could see his daughter now, Maria thought, wincing as her maid, Sally, tightened the strings of her stays, her swelling stomach protesting. He could never know how unhappy she was. Not that he ever wanted to see her again anyway.

‘Ma,am, did you want the blue or the pink today?’ Sally held two dresses in her arms.

‘Oh, the blue will do.’ Maria let Sally dress her quickly, ordering her to put her hair up in a quick and simple style.

What was the point of making an effort anyway? No one would be paying a call to this house today, nor any time in the near future. At least she had Celine to talk to, if the girl ever left her piano alone for one moment. She was down in the drawing room now, playing some endless dirge. It was as if the house was haunted, the music a constant sad presence in the house. All because Daniel was away in Liverpool for two weeks. Maria went downstairs to put a stop to it.

‘Celine, won’t you take tea with me?’ Maria rang the bell to summon the housekeeper.

Celine paused, turning to look over her shoulder. ‘Good morning, Maria. I am afraid that I may be bad company today. Daniel wrote to say that they shall be away until at least the middle of the month.’

‘My dear, let me cheer you up.’ Maria was in no mood to be refused. She walked up behind Celine, resting her hands on the girl’s shoulders until she capitulated. ‘Mrs Shanklaw, will you fetch us tea please. And some of that wonderful shortbread if there is some left.’

The women settled themselves down before the fire, the weather having grown decidedly autumnal now that October had its grip on London. The trees out on Eaton Square wore burnished copper, russet and gold, though it would not be long before they were stripped bare, each gust of wind threatening to steal away their fine clothing.

‘How are you, Maria?’ Celine asked politely. Even now that they had spent the better part of three months in close proximity, the girl seemed unable to allow herself to act informally around the older woman, though only a few years separated them. ‘Do you notice the baby at all? Is it uncomfortable?’

Maria nodded. ‘At least the unbearable sickness has passed. The doctor says that I should enter confinement shortly. Not that much will change since I seem to have been mainly shut away in this house since we returned from Scotland.’

‘I should apologise.’ Celine cast her eyes to the floor. ‘It is Daniel and I who have imposed upon you too long. No one visits because of our presence here.’

Maria leaned forward and took hold of Celine’s hand. ‘No. They would not have visited us regardless. Surely your Mrs Harper told you that I was considered an outcast before you met me? After I married Sam my father refused to have anything further to do with me. He is a man of influence. Not many would defy him or consider me worthy of incurring his wrath.’

‘He sounds just like my own father.’ Celine smiled sadly. ‘My sister has not replied to any of my letters. I even asked Jean Mouret to contact her on my behalf but he sent back a strange note. Asked me not to write to either of them again.’

‘Perhaps your father has been intercepting her letters,’ Maria suggested. ‘I know that my own has lowered himself to such a depth. My mother has to act increasingly deviously in order to see me.’

‘If only I still had a mother to care about me.’

‘Come now, let us not dwell on such things. Ah, here comes Mrs Shanklaw with the tea.’ The stern housekeeper placed the tray before her mistress and swiftly departed.

‘Sometimes I wonder if even Mrs Shanklaw looks down on me for marrying Daniel,’ Celine worried.

‘Mrs Shanklaw looks down upon all of us,’ Maria assured her. ‘We shall never live up to her expectations. She would think herself worthy of a grander house than this, one with less bohemian residents. She thinks us all mad, I am sure.’

Celine giggled. ‘Thank you Maria, you do always make me feel so encouraged. And it has all been worth it. I would rather have Daniel in my life than a father who clearly does not love me. And I never enjoyed all those dull dinner parties, having to make conversation with dullards and pretend to be enthused by the achievements of young men who cared only for my father’s money and not at all for me. Do you feel the same? You must. Sam is such a wonderful man; witty and charming, handsome. You must feel that the sacrifice has been worthwhile.’

‘Of course, my dear, of course.’ Maria hated to lie, but the thought of extinguishing the hope in Celine’s eyes was worse.

 

To begin Tales from the Olympia from the first story click below:

All Being Equal – Part 1