Illustration: Books Make You Fly by Lee White
I’ve requested a number of short story collections this year from Netgalley and publishers – it’s been a little bit since I’ve read them. There are a fair number being published this year that looked very interesting. Elsewhere, Home is from Netgalley, but I grabbed The Pre-War House and Other Stories from the library. I’ve been attracted to Alison Moore’s writing ever since reading The Lighthouse (Man Booker 2012 shortlisted). While I didn’t enjoy her second novel, He Wants, as much, I couldn’t help but think a short story collection from her would make for an enjoyable reading experience. I wasn’t wrong there!
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. While none could be said are written using linguistic gymnastics or great lyricism, they were told with a great deal of heart and nostalgia. Each were a good length, as in none were too short to feel they end abruptly but not too long either to lose its sense as a short story.
Many stories were about the struggle of straddling two cultures, leaving home or their African and Arab ways of life. Many of the stories were centred in Sudan, and moving to a new Western life (mainly in London and Scotland). They all had longing and a sense of loss of leaving and alienation felt while adapting to a different way of life. There did seem to be a lot of repetition in some of the stories, certain elements would appear almost exactly as they appeared in different stories. There was also many mentions of glasses, of a character needing glasses, or not being able to see clearly. A number of the stories were about marrying outside of their Muslim culture – either the man or the woman – so they centred around introducing their fiancees to family, to new traditions so it meant there were many explanations in each on the author’s culture.
The first story, Summer Maze was about a mother and daughter and it was a very nice start to the collection. While the daughter has lived in the US all her life, each year they return to Cairo. The mother struggles with wanting her to shelter her from western ways but is accused by her family in Egypt that while she’s left, it’s like she hasn’t moved on – she remains firmly in the old ways, even though this is not the current way of life in Egypt at all. It’s a story where the mother and daughter are trying to connect and recognize the value of new and old and what it means to each other. This seem to ground much of the rest of the collection – their struggle.
My favourites: Summer Maze, The Ostrich, and Farida’s Eyes with The Ostrich being my favourite out of the entire collection – it was one that I found to be the most compelling and I could have easily continued reading with the characters involved.
I was happy to have this collection start my return of sorts to the short story.
The Pre-War House and Other Stories
Right off the top, the first story, When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, was unsettling and it gave me many feelings similar to the ones I had when reading The Lighthouse. Huzzah!
This whole collection gives the reader an overall uneasy, unsettled, creepy kind of feeling – of danger and unease in the regular and every day.
Each story amps up the unease, unsettled and disturbed feelings. Stories such as Nurture and Seclusion for sure! Seclusion being my favourite of these three mentioned (When the Door Closed, It Was Dark, Nurture and Seclusion). Each story has quick, short sentences but they just burst in with their disturbing uneasiness. They put you on edge.
In Sleeping Under the Stars, there was just something about this sentence that I smiled at, enjoyed, I don’t know something about it just compelled me to include it here: “Mr. Batten lived alone. He had rabbits, and a grown-up daughter who no longer visited.” Then she goes on to write, “He was always there. And then, one day, he wasn’t.” and “I never saw Mr. Batten again.” These sentences were interspersed with the narrator’s talking about her trips to the store for her mother and the people she would find in the shop, and how she would spend her days. They were inserted in places where it gave me this unsettling shiver down my spine. Reading these stories made me feel kind of creeped out, and definitely unsettled.
I loved it.
Many of the stories have threads of infidelity, wandering husbands, fathers sleeping on the couch, in separate rooms, mainly men, but there are some stories where women are the unfaithful too. And there are quite a few stories where you just aren’t sure what it was that you read? And of course that just matches all the unsettled feelings and reactions to all of Moore’s stories in this collection.
I had many favourites. There was A Small Window and Sleeping Under the Stars (mentioned above) but I really liked Static, perhaps the best out of all of them. This story was about a husband discussing his wife’s illness that has confined her to her bed. He’s telling the reader that Dorothy has been the only woman for him, always. “He has never wanted anyone but Dorothy. But he has never asked for her favourite song to be played on the radio. He has never taken her to Italy. He is not the sort of man who brings home flowers. And he has never written a love letter in his life.”
The title story was the longest at 41 pages long. Definitely lengthier compared to a few of the stories which were only two pages or so long. “My father was born in the 1950s, long after the end of the war, but not before the end of rationing; even in peacetime, the meanness of the war lingered. He was raised by my grandmother in this pre-war house, and it was he, in my childhood, who re-glued the wallpaper when it peeled, who mended the clock when it failed.” It continues on to tell of the lives of this father’s daughter and his wife and what that pre-war house meant to them.
The Pre-War House is a big story collection with 24 stories inside. It definitely wasn’t a collection I steamrolled through! But I really, really liked this collection!!