Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Short Stories – A Snow Garden, by Rachel Joyce

(Note: A Snow Garden will be published on the 5th November. I got a free advanced proof copy from work.)

After enjoying Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I was incredibly excited to read her latest work. It comes out next week and is a series of interconnected short stories set around Christmas time. As you will know if you regularly read my blog or watch my Booktube channel, I love interconnected short stories. I also like Christmas and I also like Rachel Joyce, so this was a pretty good combination. And yes, I do realise it is a little too early for Christmas books. But no, I do not care.

The book features seven stories (‘A Faraway Smell of Lemon’, ‘The Marriage Manual’, ‘Christmas Day at the Airport’, ‘The Boxing Day Ball’, ‘A Snow Garden’, ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’, and ‘Trees’). They span in time from the week before Christmas until New Years’ Eve (with one brief jump back to the 1960s). We visit a wide range of memorable characters across the festive season – a middle-aged women reeling from a break up – a twelve-year-old boy who wants a dress for Christmas – a father trying to patch things up with his sons after a divorce – a new pop star not quite coping with his fame – an old man with regrets – and even a brief appearance of Harold and Maureen from Harold Fry. Each story is subtly linked to the other stories in the collection; characters crop up as passer-by’s in other stories, or a song or a Christmas card will tie them together. I loved this aspect of the book. It’s like Love Actually in book form – but a bit deeper and even better.
I love how the stories link together, and it’s partly because of that that I almost wonder why ‘The Boxing Day Ball’ is in the collection. The other stories are much more closely linked, all being set around Christmas in the same year, and clearly linked by various characters and details. Yet ‘The Boxing Day Ball’ is set on Boxing Day some decades before the rest of the stories. It narrates the first meeting between Harold and Maureen from Harold Fry and felt to me a little out of place in this collection. I kept on trying to work out if I’d missed some connection between them and the other stories, if there was more than a symbolic connection between Maureen’s red coat and the red coat of the girl pictured in the Christmas card that crops up in various other stories. Nonetheless, I loved witnessing this scene, and it was thoroughly enjoyable to revisit these two characters in their youth.

My favourite stories were definitely ‘A Faraway Smell of Lemon’ and ‘Christmas Day at the Airport’. ‘A Faraway Smell of Lemon’ is a fabulous opening to the book. It captures an encounter between a woman whose partner has just left her and a shop assistant she meets by chance, and is a beautiful and poignant observation on life, love and family. ‘Christmas Day at the Airport’ is a strange, surreal and yet astoundingly beautiful retelling of the nativity. The relationship between Madga and her wife Johanna is perhaps the most tender, well-realised relationship in the book. The whole story is clever and strange. There are moments that ought to be silly, but somehow through Joyce’s skilled writing are not only funny but intensely and beautifully moving.

Joyce’s writing is, as always, strong and poignant. Even when it sometimes fails to be subtle, it still retains a confidence and originality of phrase. Yet her true strength is, I think, characters. Every person who appears in Joyce’s stories, whether minor or major characters, feel entirely real. I found this in Harold Fry and I found it in A Snow Garden too. Her writing is perfectly suited to this kind of interconnected short story collection. Her side characters always feel like they have their own story, and here we get to see some of these stories close up.

Joyce has this incredible way of making the unbelievable believable. These stories feature several unlikely occurrences, sometimes even bordering on magic realism, and yet somehow I believed every moment of it. If you had given me the bare outlines of the ‘The Marriage Manual’ and ‘Christmas Day at the Airport’, I’d probably have suspected that they wouldn’t work. And yet both of them completely do. The fact is that Joyce’s characters are so complex, so real, so thoroughly human, that she manages to make you believe every single unlikely situation they end up in.

Over all this is beautiful, moving and lovingly written book. It is enjoyable, engaging and cleverly composed. It weaves together seven stories of family, love and winter, and is a thoroughly brilliant Christmas read.

Favourite story: ‘Christmas Day at the Airport’

Least favourite story: While I enjoyed ‘The Boxing Day Ball’, it didn’t feel as though it fitted in with the collection as well as the other stories did.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘We are at the centre of our own stories. And sometimes it is hard to believe that we are not at the centre of other people’s. But I love the fact that you can brush past a person with your own story so big in your mind and at the same time be a simple passer-by in someone else’s. A walk-on part.’

(This is in the foreword, and I think aptly sums up the book.)
Next week: Used To Be, by Elizabeth Baines

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