Thursday, November 06, 2008

The fine art of fuddlement

kw: book reviews, fiction, short stories, social malaise

A couple of decades ago, when my mother still had her wits about her (she has since passed on), I took her to Fort Smith to locate the graves of her grandparents. We also drove down the street, and found the house, where she was born—yes, right on its kitchen table. A lovely elderly lady answered her knock and offered to show her the house. Afterward she said, a bit too brightly, "They didn't change much." But then she had a faraway look. It wasn't really the same house, not any more. I've had that look, too, because I've passed by former places of my own. You really can't ever go back.

The stories in The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam are mostly about time passing people by. The opening, title piece has three retired judges, old friends/adversaries who once practiced law with and against one another, attending a dinner party and quietly coping with three or four new generations of their friends' friends' descendants. A subtext regarding a faux monk and a passel of umbrellas lends humor.

This is the general tenor of many of the stories. People who haven't necessarily moved far from home, find that "home"has been moved out from under them. We may not journey, but time makes us travelers.

Some of the stories are about cultural disorientation, such as "Learning to Fly", in which a protective mother visiting an island paradise is disconcerted by the child-rearing attitude of a strong young woman she meets. The themes are all familiar. From these stories I didn't learn any new things, but I was reminded of important things I've been learning all along.

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