Tag Archives: reading

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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The Irresistible Short Stories of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin, (sho-pan), was a master short story writer. She was a natural who, like most women of her time, had no formal training in the craft of writing. Equipped with just a French, Catholic school education in St. Louis and many interesting experiences in French Louisiana, Chopin taught herself to write with only her natural talent and the influences of Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola and Walt Whitman, her favorite contemporary writers.

But Chopin developed an alluring style all her own. Indeed, the shortest of her numerous stories seem to end too quickly; many of these shorter works are about three pages long in hardcover – ending often with the milieu of a very personal, spiritual revelation. Thus, the reader wants more of the story and more of the characters; they linger, like music, creating a delicious surround-sound of Chopin’s writing-voice.

Her characters are vivid with life and personality, namely that of the Cajun and Creole people of French populated Louisiana; although, this locale is not always obvious. An Egyptian Cigarette, told in the first person, is a tale, which could take place almost anywhere, about a woman who smokes an exotic cigarette given to her by an architect friend who travels. Chopin renders sweet, sumptuous details – as in the very box containing the cigarettes: covered with glazed, yellow paper – you want to touch the paper and feel its crinkly texture – and to hold between your fingers the tobacco of the same golden color.

The woman gets high from the cigarette and has a disturbing “dream” told in intricate, burning detail. Her induced vision seems to reveal the promise of more hidden encounters, yet she snatches up the remaining cigarettes.

I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.

Chopin is not bogged down by scene-changes; she shifts from one event, or timeframe, to the next as easily as gliding out of a room. Plots and characters vary, so that one story will be verdant with Southern vernacular while the next will ring with Ivy-League pomp and English suspense.

When you meet Pauline this morning she will be charming; she will be quite the most attractive woman in the room and the only one worthy of your attention…

So begins, A Mental Suggestion, a short, suspenseful love-story – about nine pages long in hardcover. The main character is a young professor of psychology, Don Graham, whose primary, scientific interest is in mental suggestion. Chopin’s setting is rife with lush maple trees, green lawns and sprawling tennis clubs. Graham decides to test his mental suggestion theories on two of his friends who have no interest in each other, and the professor’s experiment works brilliantly, causing the couple to fall in love and thereby giving Graham a huge ego boost. But, when his friends decide to get married, the professor worries and obsesses over how long his ‘spell’ will last. So he resolves to break the spell in order to test their love.

This is where Chopin’s skills of suspense come in. Like an all-powerful god or Cupid, Graham works his counter-mental suggestions in the cozy living room of his friend, Faverham, the newly wed husband – as rain dashes the window outside.

…the two forces, love, and the imperative suggestion had waged a short, fierce conflict within the man’s subconsciousness, and love had triumphed.

Hence, for once, Chopin allows love to overcome the dark intimation of doubt.

Desiree’s Baby might be the most well known of Chopin’s short stories, having been in the literary canon of most high school and college English curriculums. It is a brief, exquisitely told tale concerning the country’s racial past, particularly in the South. Beauty pervades Chopin’s story in these lush, Southern surroundings and in the lovely, innocent Desiree. However, the ugliness of racism becomes the driving theme, and the final loathsome truth of slavery and deep seeded racism arrives at the very end of the story.

The Storm is one of Chopin’s more erotic short stories. Like her novel, The Awakening, which was criticized and rejected by society at the time, The Storm is filled with the secret desires of married women and men who are in a turmoil of feelings that can’t be expressed verbally. These stories are delightfully rich with a colorful mixture of people and languages: the Patios, a fusion of either Spanish or French plus the dialect of the region; Creole people who were born in Louisiana but were of French or French-Canadian ancestry; the blacks and Indians of Louisiana and always the presence of children.