Tag Archives: short story

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”

Goddess Season

fog in park

In the short story, “Demeter” by Maile Meloy, the writer draws parallels between a modern-day woman named Demeter and the ancient goddess of the harvest in Greek mythology. “The Rape of Persephone,” one of the most sorrowful tales in mythology, is the story of a young girl torn from her mother, Demeter, by a great, colossal fiend – Pluto, the king of hell. In some of the mythical versions, Persephone is a maiden and in other versions she is a goddess in her own right – the goddess of spring.

As the myth is told, Persephone was picking flowers in a vast, summery field among her friends, when Pluto, the king of the underworld, snatched her up and brought her down to Hades to be his wife and his queen.

Terrified,

In tears, the goddess called her mother, called

Her comrades too, but oftenest her mother;

And, as she’d torn the shoulder of her dress,

The folds slipped down and out the flowers fell,

And she, in innocent simplicity,

Grieved in her girlish heart for their loss too.*

The myth, while portraying Pluto as a monster, also allows for the fact that Venus, the goddess of love, had arranged for the coupling by instructing Cupid to shoot Pluto in the heart with an arrow that had Persephone’s name on it.

Meloy’s short story brilliantly translates the sorrow of the Persephone myth into an everyday tale of relationships and divorce, linking the modern world to the myth of antiquity. Here, Demeter’s daughter, Perry is fourteen, perhaps a couple of years older than her mythological counterpart. And her real name is Elizabeth, an intimation of the name-confusion in the Roman vs. the Greek. For example, Persephone and Demeter in the Greek version are named Proserpine and Ceres in the Roman.

As a somewhat sporty, straight-forward and logical girl, Perry hardly mimics the nature-loving, flower child who, rather anemic, rises from the dead every spring, like Persephone – and Perry is spared from actually being abducted, but she fits well into the narrative of a young girl torn between two worlds. In her parents’ divorce-settlement, Perry is to live with her father for half the year and her mother the other half, a harrowing division of the year.

Meloy begins:

When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.** 

This correlation with the annual division of the seasons stands out as the most telling, connecting theme. In Meloy, Perry disappears into her father’s house: The dark interior of the house engulfed her. The screen door slammed shut.

Meloy sprinkles her story generously with such tropes that hearken to the original tale. Perry refuses to eat Demeter’s ultra-healthy, organic food: It’s not real food! I will not eat millet! she shouts – a nod to Persephone’s seven pomegranate seeds. Perry’s parents, Demeter and Hank, are at opposite extremes, just as the goddess of grain, who gives life and vitality to the earth vs. the king of hell, who lives in a dark, cold land underground.

mv stream

Hank is a scuba diver, and though he is not really a hateful character, death clings to his preoccupation with the extreme. The premise of plunging underwater or swimming works well in Meloy as both symbols of death and transformation – two key ideas that fill the Greek myths.

While Hank’s scuba diving conjures death in Meloy’s story; for instance, their friend, Duncan – Demeter’s lover – drowns on a scuba diving expedition lead by Hank, conversely, Meloy uses swimming as a platform for transformation and healing with Demeter. Just as Arethusa transformed into a beautiful, streaming pool in Ovid, the modern Demeter transforms as she swims in the local swimming pool:

It was her favorite moment of swimming, the passage from dry to wet, her skin shedding tiny bubbles of air as she kicked. It felt as if the world were washing off her. She was starting over, newborn.**

Among many brilliant references to the gods, the celestial-constellations, lightening bolts and “thundersnow,” Meloy supplies her Demeter with plenty of similarities to the character of Demeter in the ancient myth. Both women are the quintessential earth mother; one can imagine each of them cultivating the earth, barefoot – long, wavy hair billowing in the flower-scented air. At her most subtle and brilliant moments, Meloy brings the two together in spirit:

As soon as she knew she was pregnant, Demeter had stopped smoking pot. She started meeting the black-coated Hutterites in their truck to buy chickens and eggs. She bought vegetables at the farmers’ market from the Hmong refugees, who coaxed green shoots from the ground so much earlier in the year than anyone else. She ordered milk from the dairy and made baked eggs and cream with Hmong chives. She didn’t worry about getting fat – she was supposed to get fat.** 

The goddess Demeter can be inserted into this scenario of natural, culinary, food preparation with these nomadic, pastoral peoples. As well, both Demeters bear powerful feelings and emotions: the tormented, inner thoughts of the modern Demeter often match the violent responses of the sometimes angry, ancient mother-goddess.  And, of course, they both suffer with the tragedy of separation – the consequence of their unbreakable ties to a young daughter.

Meloy’s story is a tale of grief and loss, just as sorrowful as the original mythological tale. Demeter’s feelings emerge in waves over the separation with Perry as much as for the death of Duncan. And the writer brings us ever closer to Demeter’s loss, by degrees, to the culminating moment in the pool when Demeter tries to imagine, while swimming, what Duncan may have felt as he drowned. Then, the whole universe seems to react to Demeter’s slight flirtation with drowning. Annie, the lifeguard who also happens to be Duncan’s eighteen-year-old daughter by his marriage, becomes the sentry amidst all of nature’s omnipresence – blowing her whistle and clamoring down the ladder.

pool storm

And as in the Greek, Meloy ends with a measure of justice – but with an almost joyful portion of hope. Scenes in which Demeter frolics in the snow with the teenagers, after the summer snowstorm of mythic proportions, symbolize a christening or a blessing of eternal hope – perhaps even Duncan’s blessing. The complications and challenges within a lifetime have brought Demeter to middle age, yet Annie represents the next generation, and she does so with a sense of anticipation. Annie includes and accepts Demeter where Perry, her own daughter, had always shunned and marginalized. Yet, Annie also lightly ridicules her own mother – such is the way of mother/daughter relationships in the modern world.

Meloy renders a beautiful ending worthy of the goddess who promotes the continuation of all life. Whether you are a mother, a daughter, and/or a lover of mythology, you will love and appreciate this story.

* Metamorphoses by Ovid, Translated by A.D. Melville.  Book V, The Rape of Proserpine.

** “Demeter,” by Maile Meloy, appeared in The New Yorker, November 19th, 2012.

Fitzgerald’s Craft

F. Scott Fitzgerald had an economical way of including important detail in his stories: the who, what, where, why and when of storytelling that readers expect. Yet, Fitzgerald could be efficient while also maintaining melodic prose. A writer who wrote during extremely difficult, tragic times as well as during times of excess and extravagance, Fitzgerald seemed to be at the center of a worldly hub, and he had the drive and the energy to write about it in the genre of fiction.

In the newly discovered short story, Thank you For The Light, Fitzgerald consistently begins a paragraph with a fresh idea to keep the reader interested:

“Eastward, she had known her clientele chattily and had often been offered a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded. But she soon found that in her new district things were different.”

The story is about a woman, Mrs. Hanson, who works as a traveling saleswoman, selling lingerie to appointed buyers in her district. Mrs. Hanson’s initial challenge lies in the adjustment of being assigned to a different district. A smoker, it seems at first that Mrs. Hanson’s anxieties are all hinged around her, rather modest, habit of cigarette smoking. Utilizing this trope, Fitzgerald demonstrates the ways people falter from being rigid to casual and from intolerance to compassion. For example, Mrs. Hanson runs into a friend from her old district who tells her that the client she is about to see would never tolerate smoking. The friend points out that the younger men would not mind if a person smoked but an older man usually would detest it:

“…nobody who was in the war would ever object to anyone smoking.”

Compassion enters into the story: those who have experienced life’s horrors, as in a war, will have compassion, but a man who hasn’t experienced things beyond the mundane business world, will usually not be compassionate. Fitzgerald tugs at our human empathy and infuses the main character with vulnerability. To further win the reader’s approval, Mrs. Hanson’s character is always genuinely humble, politely conforming, using temperance and even gratitude. Fitzgerald applies nice detail in depicting a surprisingly young man, “the exception to the rule,” who disapproves of Mrs. Hanson’s cigarette.

“He seemed a pleasant young man but his eyes fixed with so much fascination on the cigarette that she was tapping on her thumbnail that she put it away.”

In a milieu of post war callousness alongside the march of progress on the mean streets, Mrs. Hanson suffers a spiritual crisis. She feels “a vague dissatisfaction,” no matter how successful her business calls have been, and she attaches this to the fact that she hasn’t been able to have a single puff of a cigarette. As she stands suddenly in front of a Catholic cathedral; “it seemed very tall,” and goes inside, she ponders over her smoking habit, “I’m getting to be a drug fiend,” and she wonders whether God would approve. It is here that we start to realize this isn’t all about cigarettes.

Inside the cathedral, Fitzgerald juxtaposes darkness and light, the tremendous height of the cathedral, inside and out, to Mrs. Hanson’s relative smallness and her remarkable humility, yet the writer brings into alignment the very essence of the Virgin Mary and Mrs. Hanson, herself. – the two women are alike:

“In her imagination, the Virgin came down, like in the play,The Miracle,

and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired,

just as she was.”

Though she is not Catholic or even particularly religious, Mrs. Hanson awakens, inside the cathedral of ever- burning candles, from her lucid nap to a kind of emancipation in the form of a very personal miracle.

Hence, Fitzgerald quickly and skillfully renders an epiphany with enough emotion and mystery to satisfy his readers!

(Thank you For The Light appeared in The New Yorker, Aug. 6th, 2012)

“Thank You For The Light”