The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – Rose Tremain

One of the reasons that when I was choosing the list of books for Trespassing with Tremain I decided to include The Darkness of Wallace Simpson and Other Stories, was that it was the one book of Tremain’s that I bought before inheriting some of her others from Gran. I remember picking it up years ago simply because Wallis Simpson was a woman who had always fascinated me; as a person, her role in history and how people reacted to her, simple as that. I also thought it might be interesting to see how Tremain handles the short story, which many authors say is much harder than writing an actual novel.

Vintage Books, paperback, 2006, short stories, 224 pages, from my personal collection

The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is a rather fascinating collection of short stories in many ways. This set of twelve tales may happen all over the world in different time periods yet the main narrator of the tale, or protagonist, is undergoing some sort of darkness. It might be loss, it might be grief, it could be death surrounding them or being upon them, each tale has its own dark heart. This might make it sound like a sombre and rather macabre collection yet when you come away from the collection you feel anything but depressed. After all aren’t the best fairytales about just these things.

It could be tempting to give this collection the tag of ‘modern fairytale’ in part because there are often abandoned children, snowy landscapes and in one case, Moth, there is even a child who magically sprouts wings. Yet there is so much reality, and often a historical link, embedded in them that you feel these are the stories of ordinary human beings in unordinary situations of high drama within their lives. When we go through loss and/or grief we are of course at our most emotional extremes and life doesn’t seem quite real and yet it is. Tremain has a wonderful way of capturing that.

Some of the short stories are literally just that, short sharp bursts into a characters life. How It Stacks Up looks at a man who suddenly on his birthday realises he is utterly unhappy with his life. The Dead Are Only Sleeping starts with Nell answering the phone to discover her dad has died and relief fills her. The Over-Ride  is quite something as is takes in one person’s youth, marriage, widowhood and downward spiral in only ten pages. The aforementioned Moth is another such short wonder. Not a word is wasted, every single one counts.

In those days, there was a madhouse in our village.
It’s name was Waterford Asylum, but we knew it as ‘the Bin’.
It appeared to have no policy of selection or rejection. If you felt your own individual craziness coming on, you could present yourself at the door of the Bin and this door would open for you and kindly staff would take you in, and you would be sheltered from the cruel world. This was the 1950s. A lot of people were suffering from post-war sadness. In Norfolk, it seemed to be a sadness too complete to be assuaged by the arrival of rock’n’roll.
Soon after my sister, Aviva, died of influenza in 1951, my brother in law, Victor, turned up at the Bin with his shoes in a sack and a broken Doris Day record. He was one of the many voluntary loonies, driven mad by grief. His suitability as a resident of Waterford Asylum was measured by his intermittent belief that this record, which had snapped in half, like burned, brittle caramel crust, could be mended.

This is also the case in the longer tales and here, as shown in the opening sections of The Ebony Hand (which isn’t the ghost story you might be imagining, yet is marvellous regardless), Tremain has a wonderful way of managing to make a story within these stories in a mere paragraph of two. She does this again in the wonderful Loves Me, Loves Me Not which is one of the most bittersweet and heartbreaking love stories I have ever read, it will break your heart and then do it again. The same happens with The Cherry Orchard, with Rugs which is subtle, beautiful and devastating tale of an almost love affair. Both times you come away pretty close to being emotionally shattered and you thank Tremain for doing that to you.

If this makes it all sound like it is too dark or wrought, Tremain does what she did so marvellously in Trespass where she combines the dark with the very funny. Mentioning Moth again, which as you will have guessed was one of the standouts for me, we have the magical and bizarre image of a child who can fly away from its parents, and we also have a suicide which is greeted with a one liner that made me cackle and cackle. The same duality works in all the tales, Peerless also standing out as Badger, a nickname that stuck from childhood, adopts a Penguin who soon reminds him of someone from his past, it is funny and tear inducing, just what all the best tales are.

I also loved the way you could see what had inspired Tremain. You may be wondering why I have included a picture of James Tissot’s Holyday, well it is the inspiration behind Death of an Advocate which is another tale that had me giggling at the start before being shocked out of my laughter. History inspires many of the tales here too. The post war syndrome inspiring The Ebony Hand, one of the Word Wars inspiring Loves Me, Loves Me Not and the knocking down of the Berlin Wall inspiring The Beauty of the Dawn Shift. One tale, Nativity Story, is based on, erm, just that. Then of course there is the real life historical figure of Wallis Simpson who inspires the title tale.

Kissing her one minute, hitting her the next. A person out of a nightmare. There’s no talking to such a creature. Wallis can say words today, but why should she? Why should she waste her precious breath talking to this hag?
She turns her face away. Sees the girl in the apron staring at her with such a sad pitying look, it makes her weep. Fuck all these people. Piss in the damned pan and be done with them. Have them draw the curtains again. Go back to the darkness.

Before I round up the collection I want to pay special attention to The Darkness of Wallace Simpson itself which I think is one of the best short stories I have ever read. It is the longest of the collection at forty pages and yet is the one I rushed through the fastest before having to read it all over again once I had finished the collection. It brims, it is jam packed. Firstly there is the tale of Wallis herself, as she lies dying in Paris she is thinking over her life and Tremain somehow packs in the life of a woman in forty pages, yet I felt I had came away reading a biography. Her childhood, marriages and old ages are all covered, it is deftly done. There is also the tale of a woman always slightly on the back foot of life, from being disapproved of by family, then husbands, then the public and even her own careers. It looks at domestic abuse, grief, lack of freedom and love. It is just incredible.

Yet again Tremain has delivered for me in abundance. Her writing is clear, concise, vivid and just wonderful really. Each story stood out, they might have had a linking theme throughout but The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and Other Stories  is a wonderfully diverse collection where each story stands out.

I loved it and cannot wait to read her new collection, The American Lover on and off over the next few weeks as well as Sacred Country and Restoration as we carry on with Trespassing with Tremain. That is quite enough from me though for the moment, if you have read it what did you make of it? If you haven’t read it yet, read it.

16 Comments

Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Short Stories, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

16 responses to “The Darkness of Wallis Simpson – Rose Tremain

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’ve never read any Tremain, Simon, but this sounds tremendous!

    • Honestly she has been a complete and utter revelation to me. A huge thanks to Gran for recommending her all this time, only sad I can’t talk to her about them. However both my mum and The Beards mum are huge fans!

  2. Ooo I might have to get hold of a copy of this!

  3. Rob

    In spite of not being a fan of short stories, I was drawn into this collection because of Wallis Simpson and Simon and Gran’s recommendations. What an experience!!!! I found each story a gift. Sometimes I chuckled, sometimes I felt a bit sick to my stomach……but I felt/related to each story. The Wallis Simpson story and the one with the little boy growing wings were my favorites……totally different, totally absorbing. Thanks to you Simon and to Gran for another GREAT read!!!!

  4. Rob

    I have been stung SO many times with short story collections…….SO, it will have to be a Simon approved recommendation or another Tremain………..more will be revealed!!!!

  5. I’m a long-time fan of Rose Tremain.
    Also I’ve watched some wicked, wicked documentaries about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII and their traitorous behavior, so this story collection interests me.

  6. I have also always held a bit of a secret fascination for Wallis Simpson, so this book is now winging its way to me. I love short stories, so am looking forward to being transported into a host of different tales…
    Thanks for this review.

    • An absolute pleasure. I hope you really enjoy them. I wonder what it is about Wallis that compels us to know more. Maybe it’s the way she, in a roundabout way, changed history.

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