Apparently I’m getting over my hesitation to read shorter works, because I’m doing an increasing amount of it lately.
I discovered these “Penguin Shorts,” brief Kindle edition pieces by major authors (Helen Dunmore, in today’s case) designed to be read by commuters, or people like me: book whores who can’t let a morning pass without reading something. And, while reading a few pages of a book is all well and good, there’s something satisfying about saying “I read an entire book this morning!” that trumps it.
My first experience with a Penguin short was a bit mixed. Helen Dunmore’s a fabulous writer but “Protection” left me befuddled and wanting. It’s akin to the annoying habit some have [READ: Me] of starting sentences, then trailing off once the point seems to be understood, not bothering to proceed to the necessity of punctuation.
“Today I went to the … (holds up grocery store bag)”
The result is both informational and irritating, all at the same time. And such is a loose comparison with Dunmore’s piece. It ends when the virtual magician pulls the tablecloth out from under the dishes, but doesn’t mention if the dishes were left intact. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
The story’s about a woman, Florence, and her two almost-teenaged twin daughters, Clare and Marian, who live in a rural area outside London. Florence’s husband, Jack, works in London, commuting back and forth, leaving the ladies alone in their remote home three nights every week.
Being in the middle of nowhere – on a isolated, forested piece of land – is unnerving when Jack’s away. When she wakes one night, uncertain what disturbed her sleep, Florence’s adrenaline rushes:
“The house is still. It creaks and stirs but she’s used to that. A house this age is a living thing. It was nothing, she tells herself, but her body knows better. Her skin prickles. Don’t pretend. You won’t get out of it that way. She leans over the side of the bed, scrabbles for the sheet and wraps it around her.”
Grabbing a length of pipe she only brings out when Jack’s away, Florence explores the house, then realizes the noise is coming from outside. A flashlight beam flickers across her bedroom window. She freezes, unable to approach the window directly because she leaves her curtains open at night – to see the stars. If she walks up to it she’ll be seen, so she peeps carefully through the bottom of the window. Outside there are four men, walking along a country path into the woods. What they’re doing, she has no idea. And no, I won’t tell you. This is a short, people! Nice try.
Isolation and loneliness are the two major themes of the piece. Florence, left alone when Jack is in the city, feels no less so when he’s home with her. An editor working hard to get a literary journal off the ground, he’s obsessed with obtaining funding and landing talent. Mentally he’s checked out, his head still in London. Two or three times a day he walks to the nearby town to use the phone – the house lacks one – to make business calls. And all his conversations with Florence involve work.
Then, the twins. The adage twins share an inseparable, selfish bond proves true in the case of her daughters:
“The only trouble is that every time you come into their bedroom you feel as if you’re interrupting something. It’s like living with a newly married couple, who are perfectly polite but have no real interest in anyone but themselves. But with her girls the honeymoon has gone on for years; fierce, secretive and so intimate that it seems to suck all the air of the room into itself.”
Not that Florence’s own work is any more social. She’s a sculptor, working in solitude, one reason she agreed to move to the country in the first place:
“She was hungry for time – had been ravenous for it for years, since the girls had been born. (…) Jack saw the space, but it was time she craved: acres of it.”
So it isn’t as if Florence hasn’t grown used to the fact of her isolation; it’s that she’s grown weary of it. She’s lonely, with no one to turn to and now they’re living far enough outside London she can’t hop on the Tube and be with people, even in the midst of people if not visiting one person in particular. Her house is lonely, her children are insular, her work is solitary and her husband’s mind is otherwise occupied. That leaves nothing for her, no one who puts her at the center, who relies on and craves her attention.
Between the isolation that brings fear and that which brings loneliness Florence decides one day, after a suggestion made by the milkman, what she’s lacking is a dog – a big, protective dog. Her reaction at first is no, she doesn’t care for dogs. But then, she imagines having a warm, furry body curled up next to her in bed; a protective, massive dog to keep them all safe.
“The dog snuffles the back of Florence’s hand and then she turns it over and he tastes the salt of her palm. The touch of him is strange at first. He nuzzles her then, and she feels herself dissolve with tenderness for him, because he has not rejected her.”
What a telling way to phrase it: “… because he has not rejected her.”
You know how sometimes a book seems unsatisfactory once you’ve read the last paragraph, then you think more about it and can appreciate it more? That’s just happened to me with this novella/short story. I can see it now, can understand more its seemingly abrupt ending, not that I wouldn’t love to see this bit turned into part of a much longer work. It has elements that draw me in and definitely kept my interest. Though, yes, it was short. But still, it kept me, if not turning pages, then sliding them on my iPhone.
I would recommend ‘Protection’ after all, with the caveat it does have an ending that may have you tilting your head, perplexed. Still, it’s a beautiful, short piece of writing.
Helen Dunmore’s new novel:
Atlantic Monthly Press. September 2012.
“A perfect ghost story”—The Independent
“Conveys a shivery menace . . . This is the most elegant flesh-creeper since Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.”—The Times (UK)
“Dunmore has a sharp eye, and a fine pen, for the hairline cracks in a new marriage, for what is not said as passion begins to dwindle.”—The Guardian
I was born in December 1952, in Yorkshire, the second of four children. My father was the eldest of twelve, and this extended family has no doubt had a strong influence on my life, as have my own children. In a large family you hear a great many stories. You also come to understand very early that stories hold quite different meanings for different listeners, and can be recast from many viewpoints. read more…