Some authors were made to write novel-length prose. Some were born to write words in short story chunks. Then there are those who manage to do both well. I'm not sure which categorisation Rose Tremain would fit in - if one would even dare to do so - but let me take a gamble: I have a sneaking suspicion she belongs in the first category.
Having won the Whitbread Novel of the Year in 1996 for Music and Silence and received praising reviews for her latest novel, The Colour, Rose Tremain is undeniably a good novelist. It was with this knowledge I armed myself with before expecting to enjoy her latest collection of twelve short stories, The Darkness of Wallis Simpson.
The title story imagines the last years of Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American who King Edward VIII abdicated for in 1936. Tremain takes this true story and spins it into a tale filled with whimsy and irony.
Wallis Simpson is dying but why can she only remember her first two husbands - one abusive the other kind yet boring - but not her third, world-famous husband? Her lawyer, Maitre Suzanne Blum, forces her to remember but it only ends in frustration: "Wallise! Talk to me. Don't pretend anymore. Pretence is so ungrateful! He gave up an Empire for you. An Empire! And you pretend to remember nothing. But I 'ave sworn to myself I shall not rest, I shall not return to my legal practice nor go again into the world until you admit to me that do remember."
The other stories take their cue from the initial story and continue the theme of loss, divorce, family, longing, etc. such as in "The Beauty of the Dawn Shift", concerning a guard on the east side of the Berlin Wall finding the familiarity of the old regime threatened by the looming threat of capitalism when Germany reunites. He cycles across a wintery Poland hoping to find his past in Russia: "Since childhood, he'd admired the stern ways of his country, and he hoped to find these still prevailing in Russia."
This story, along with some of the other stories, like "The Ebony Hand" about a spinster who has to take care of her niece; "The Over-Ride", about a man who as a child, loved to sit outside an apartment of a musician couple; and "Moth", about a baby who grows wings, are the ones that make the book worth a read.
The other stories seem only to act as filler, and are oft times uninspired and meandering. In "Nativity Story", her annoying use of adverbs even mars the story flow:
" 'Oh, nothing,' he said vaguely. 'She's just having her baby.'
'Having her what?' I said stupidly."
Ultimately though, it is Rose Tremain's ability to weave wonderful prose about the fragility of the human condition - frequently taking place in an understated historical moment in time - that manage to make this collection worth at least a read.