I’m back in familiar-short-story-territory with Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories. And that territory is uneven. Some of the stories in this collection shone but others, not so much. There are twelve stories, predominantly exploring the different roles of women – in friendship, as mothers and daughters, and as wives.
Despite the overarching theme, the collection lacked cohesion. The stories didn’t feel like they belonged together – changes in pace and style jolted me from one to the next. This may be because the stories were drawn from various sources – archives, journals, published and unpublished (written in the 1960s and 1970s) – as opposed to imagined together, written as bedfellows. But here they are together, bound in a striking blue jacket.
My favourite was Alice, a story that is biting and relevant, despite being set in the 1920s. Although the ending is a little introspective, it is satisfying and thoughtful. Equally good was Lance Harper, His Story – the only story told from a male perspective, it had an unexpected twist that ticked all my short-story boxes.
There were others that I enjoyed – The Beautiful Climate was reflective of a time when women had little or no say in the way the family operated and The Cost of Things was weirdly relevant to a discussion I had with someone last night (and I’ll be sending them a few insightful quotes from this story).
In the more successful stories, Harrower quickly established the scene and built the characters. Of Alice’s overbearing mother –
“Her mother was Scottish born and bred – irrational, raucous, bony, quick-tempered, and noisy. She had no feelings. She was bright, like anything burning: a match, a firecracker, a tree. Alice was as watchful as a small herbivorous animal. Mother and child were unsatisfied.”
And in a simple statement, Harrower gets to the root of so many complex mother-daughter relationships –
“Because her mother was her mother, and there was no one else, Alice thought she was marvelous”.
And to the heart of the uneven ‘friendship’, where one women is the ‘banker’ of information* –
“One must start a conversation in some way and, although Miss Frazer’s interest lay more in the rich deep seams of pain, problem, and frustration than in the thin surface soil of mere chatter, she understood the art of mining for such drifts.”
Comparing a writer of Harrower’s calibre to others may be rude but as this book will be compared to the nth degree as part of the Stella Prize judging, I’m going there. The collection did bring to mind the work of Rose Tremain and Elizabeth Taylor. While I prefer Taylor (who manages to combine the comedy-of-manners with satisfying moral dilemmas) it’s worth noting that you’re likely to enjoy Harrower if Tremain and Taylor are your cup of tea.
2.5/5 Something tells me I’d feel differently about Harrower if I read her novels.
Will it win the Stella? No – it may get a sentimental vote but pitted against Daylight’s short story collection, it comes up short.
*as an aside, I’m glad I’m grown-up enough to avoid these ‘friendships’ like the plague.