by Elizabeth Smither
There is something almost magical about the way a well-crafted short story can reveal to the reader a facet or facets of the human condition that they hitherto had not even recognised, or, in other cases, can bring gasps of recognition. Most of the stories in this collection do just this, and much more. They leave the reader reflective, sad or amused by turn, and well-rewarded by the insights given.
There is a special intimacy in each and every one of these twenty offerings. They take us into the realms of private dreams, of friendships altered by the passage of time, of secret yearnings and the poignant games played when relationships break down.
At the heart of most of the stories is a relationship that is either withering or growing as time passes. Sometimes these feature the fraught but deep links between mother and daughter, or school friendships or animosities. The tensions are played out against beautifully evoked atmosphere of the times and the places in which the stories are set.
All of the stories have an element of surprise, perhaps none more so than one relating the response of a woman who is afflicted by a debilitating and embarrassing skin disease. Only one with the author’s highly refined skills could make of a success of such a theme – it is a story of both courage and humour.
Some of the stories feature cooking and the pleasures of eating, and the rituals that accompany these activities. Here the links between food and the enjoyment or otherwise of human company are subtly drawn out, always with that touch of humour and compassion.
Another theme is music, and how it can influence mood, bringing together or dividing, enhancing or diminishing our enjoyment of the world.
But there is something else that underlies many of these stories. It is a kind of nostalgia. Not a sentimentalisation of the past – Smither is far too fine a writer to be guilty of this – but rather an elegiac acceptance that much in which we once found comfort and enjoyment has become either irretrievably lost. or at least increasingly difficult to achieve. This is perhaps most touchingly illustrated by the story ‘Christmas with Tallulah’. It is the final story in the book, and it demonstrates in very human terms that greater wealth and mobility and all of those things that have allegedly made our lives richer and more rewarding, have come too often at the cost of the closest and dearest of family relationships.
The twenty stories are not presented according to any clear theme. The volume is rather more like a lucky dip. It doesn’t matter which story you start with, as you can be sure it will be a gem. ‘The Piano Girls’ is a brilliant collection of stories from one of our very finest writers.
Author: Elizabeth Smither
Publisher: Quentin Wilson Publishing
Available: paper: bookshops