Have you ever wondered how virtuous Jane Eyre survived marriage to blind Mr Rochester? Clare Boylan's "The Secret Diary of Mrs Rochester", one of the short stories in her new collection That Bad Woman (Little,Brown #163;13.99) offers an inside view.
Jane's diary re-acquaints us with her modesty and sweetness. "I was compelled to be my master's eyes but my vision of life is a plain one whereas his divination dwelt within his head . . ." But as the diary goes on to reveal, Rochester can see, has in fact regained his sight before Jane returned to him but pretended otherwise to trick her into marriage. This revelation fails to destroy the tone of the diary for Jane retains her high-mindedness. She begins to perceive further duplicities, confronts Rochester with them and he, accusing her of madness, locks her in a room and goes off on another jaunt abroad.
To understand how the outcome is "a life of ideal domesticity" you need to be acquainted with Boylan's delight in irony. In this and other stories the eclaircissement often turns on a wily or unexpected compromise.
In one story a widower, unhinged by grief, is visited by children from another planet and wonders why she alone can see them. "Anyone can see us," they reply. "People don't look. Hardly anyone looks at the world. They only see what's in their own life." Boylan, however, has a huge talent for seeing imaginatively into the lives of others, be they a baby snatcher, a married man torn between his past and present wives or a middle-aged woman offered illusory happiness by a time-serving young man. There is also a glorious burlesque in which a female journalist, determined to unmask her victim in a Christmas special for the Sunday Chimes, confronts the prolific novelist Arabella Cartwheel ("drifting through her tenth decade in a cloud of wilting tulle") on her belief in perfect love.
The short stories in Love Your Enemies won Nicola Barker the International Silver PEN Award. Owing to her fascination with low life, and her spare style, critics have linked her name with that of Amis and Barnes. But the foul story told in Small Holdings (Faber #163;8.99) aligns her to some of the bizarre, sadistic, numbly horrifying obsessions which have helped achieve notoriety for Damien Hirst and other young contemporary artists. Small Holdings centres on a handful of oddballs all of whom work in an underfunded park in Palmers Green. Immediately, for this reader, Grovelands came to mind, the park adored by Stevie Smith. Towards the end of the novel we are told that one of the characters lives in Avondale Road, next to the house where Stevie Smith lived. But if she remains Palmers Green's pre-eminent muse, none of her influence, humour or wisdom is found here.
The park in Small Holdings, far from displaying the "staunch and inviolate melancholy" which Stevie Smith enjoyed in winter rain, is treated as little more than a terrain in which anger and violence can be expressed. All the characters suffer some disability, be it madness, the loss of a leg or eye or, as in the case of the main protagonist, Phil, a crippling shyness.
In Tony Peake's Son to the Father (Little,Brown #163;15.99), Peter Smallwood, motivated less by desire than an absence of resistance, moves in with Jacqui and her son Jed. When Jed gets a part in a film, all three fly to Spain where they become entangled with director Carlos Tarifa and his film crew. Cut off from his usual life as TEFL teacher in a Camden school, Peter encounters in himself and others conflicts and the need for a centre. His sexual confusions, en route to recognition of his homosexuality, are poignantly described, as is the difficult relationship between him and his Communist father.