Rating: 5 stars
Well here’s an appropriate book to have been reading on March 1st and 2nd 2018, when what should be the first days of spring turned out to be the coldest March days in living memory. Snowed in and unable to get out of the house, what else could I turn to but these short stories by Rachel Joyce, widely known as the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry? (This was a long-list finalist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and won Joyce the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year. It was also the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in 2012.) As a great fan both of Rachel Joyce and of short stories I was delighted to be given A Snow Garden and had been saving it to read when I next had long train journeys.
It’s a set of seven exquisite and very different stories, taking place over a fortnight at the end of the year and all slightly interlinked. Each story shows the delicate touch of humour and empathy that typifies Rachel Joyce’s work, and her ability to plunge us right into the lives of others. She has a great way of thrusting her readers right into the heart of each tale. A Faraway Smell of Lemon, the first story, opens thus:
It is half past nine and Oliver will be eating porridge in his Asterix bowl. At the age of thirty-three he has no regular habits but these – the porridge and the bowl – and he is faithful to both. ‘Sod him,’ Binny snorts, striding into the morning traffic.
Instantly we are placed into the difficult world of Binny, coping with her children and Oliver, trying her best to make some sort of sense out of it all and to take the practical steps she needs in order to be ready for Christmas, when it’s already the last day of term and she’s done nothing at all so far. An unexpected encounter in a shop makes her see her life differently and find a way to go on.
The stories frequently have similar twists – people muddling through their lives, as we the readers all often feel that we do ourselves, suddenly finding new ways of dealing with events and emotions, perceived obstacles and real ones, finding strengths and admitting weaknesses and the need to accept help from outside. In the title story, A Snow Garden, divorced father Henry is expecting his sons Owen and Conor to stay for several nights just after Christmas and has rashly promised them there will be snow.
The boys kept asking if there would be snow at the new flat. ‘Yes,’ he told them. It began as a joke but then it got to be serious.
This clearly isn’t something over which he has any control, and he knows all too well that he was crazy to promise it. Luckily, in Rachel Joyce’s fictional world miracles can happen and his promise finds a way to become true, when he has no control over events and just lets things happen.
The stories end, as they began, with Oliver, but in Trees he’s the central focus of the story whereas in A Faraway Smell of Lemons our focus has been squarely placed on Binny. Like Binny, Oliver is trying and struggling to cope with the recent changes in his life and in Trees it’s his father who provides the unexpected twist when on New Year’s Eve he announces:
‘I wish I’d planted more trees.’
Oliver dug his fingers through his hair. It was what he did when he was confused. ‘Trees?’
‘You didn’t plant any trees, Dad.’
His father groaned as if he’d been punched.
Over the next few hours, as the year runs to its end, Oliver and his dad work together to remedy this and to heal both their fractured relationship and their individual lives.
Joyce isn’t saying that things will run smoothly for any of her characters from here on. Instead her characters come to accept that things are as they are – life just is – and we can accept our lives and welcome change or not. The whole collection of stories captures what Joyce is so wonderful at evoking – possibilities of new beginnings even in extraordinarily painful endings.
Oliver’s story was not over, it was still happening, and the night he planted the trees was just a new twist. He could learn from it or ignore it. The choice was his.
Reviewed by Daisy