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Midsummer Night in the Workhouse: Stories – Book Review

Love, she thought. What a tangle. And she danced a few steps at being alone in the quiet street. The branch of a tree reached over a wall above a lamp-post, its leaves still young and fresh, a brilliant theatrical green in the artificial light. Between the lamp-posts the sky reappeared, a deep purple-blue where the moon was suspended straight overhead, but rusty pink with London’s glow where it came down at the end of the street to outline the roofs. She need not go home. She could decide to walk all night, make for the river or Hampstead Heath, because she was not tired and her shoes were comfortable in spite of their heels.  – from An Island –

Diana Athill will celebrate her 94th birthday tomorrow (December 21). Athill retired at the age of 75 after fifty years in publishing, and then went on to write a series of memoirs, one of which (Somewhere Towards The End) won her the 2009 Costa Book Award. She has also written a novel and many short stories. She is one of the most iconic figures in publishing (her response to V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous comment about women only writing “tosh” was brilliant). Athill’s sharp wit and keen observations inform her latest collection of short stories: Midsummer Night in the Workhouse.

The stories in this collection are connected thematically and revolve around women (mostly young women finding or losing love). In No Laughing Matter, a young woman experiences first love and faces the wrenching decision about whether or not she will lose her virginity. The Real Thing introduces the reader to a woman in her first year of University who is enthralled by her first kiss even though it lacks the passion she had expected.

I stood quite still while Toofat was kissing me – it didn’t take long – and I was doing a lot of things all at once: thinking ‘This is me, being kissed’; remembering Thomas Hardy; noticing the tree with the lights and the green grass outside the windows; listening to the music from the house; smelling the honeysuckle; thinking that I must fix every bit of it in my mind for ever. – from The Real Thing –

Love for the women in Athill’s stories is not always unencumbered – they consider cheating on their spouses, they have one night stands, they get drunk and dream of a life unattached to their husband. One woman has a week long affair and then is haunted by the possibilities for years afterwards as she plods through her predictable marriage. Another woman leaves her husband at a party and walks home alone and drunk – along the way, she appreciates the beauty of a wine glass and the moon in the sky and hopes to remember the feeling of being utterly alone in the world.

I must remember, I must remember how beautiful it is, because now I can see it. It is so still, and the grass has just been cut, and the leaves are being blown, they are just settling together, sometimes, on the air, and the wine glass is standing on the railing, and I am alone. I am me, under the moon, on a summer night, alone. – from An Island –

Perhaps my favorite of the collection is the title story, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, where a writer finds herself at a luxurious retreat battling writer’s block and a charming author whose work is perhaps just ordinary. Cecilia reflects on the other writers at the retreat, and is distracted by Charles Opie, a man whose wife has divorced him because of an affair and who has enjoyed an element of fame associated with his writing. In this story, the sexual tension is played out against the backdrop of a woman’s struggle with her career, self-doubt, and the difficulty of finding inspiration within her life.

The horror in wait at Hetherston, nearest in her room but present everywhere, even after dinner when she talked with the others or pub-crawled with Philip, came from the knowledge of how closely her work connected with her own experience and dread that everything of significance in that experience might have been used up. – from Midsummer Night in the Workhouse –

Athill’s writing is fluid, simple, perceptive and sometimes funny. She is able to capture the internal conflict of her characters with ease, uncovering their insecurities, dreams, joy and despair. I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful collection of stories, slipping into the lives of women who could define a generation. There was a time when a woman was supposed to be proper, not take risks, focus on family instead of career, and be the dutiful wife. Athill’s prose reveals the hidden desires and adventurous spirits of woman who came of age in that era.

Readers who want to be transported by an author who has established herself as one of the best writers of the late twentieth century, will be well rewarded by picking up a copy of Diana Athill’s collection of short stories.

Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure: The publisher provided me with this book for review on my blog.

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4 Comments

  1. December 20, 2011    

    Oooh! I think I would looooove this collection. I’ve been caught up in short stories lately and want to get my hands on more, more, more!

  2. December 21, 2011    

    I have also been more receptive to short stories lately, and would love to read this collection. It sounds as if there is a lot of range in this book, and I loved some of the excerpts that you posted. Thanks for sharing your excellent review with us today!

  3. December 28, 2011    

    Andi: I think this one is right up your alley!!

    Heather: You’re welcome – I hope you’ll get a chance to read it!

  4. Rebecca Mathews Rebecca Mathews
    January 4, 2012    

    Wow, 94th birthday ! That’s amazing !

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