Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: Midsummer Night In The Workhouse

by Diana Athill.

House of Anansi Press. 2011. Paperback, 196 pages.

Diana Athill, former editor for Andre Deutsch and Costa Biography Award-winning memoirist, has penned a collection of genreless short stories held together by themes of conflicted love, moral ambiguity, and nonconsensual power sharing. This is her first collection; the stories here first appeared "between the 1950's and 1970's," according to the book's front flap. Of the twelve stories, only one, "An Afternoon Off", features a male protagonist.

What unites nearly all Athill's women are their ill-fated, awkward, or visibly doomed relationships with men. In "No Laughing Matter," Jane's boyfriend ends their relationship, refuses to sleep with her, and patronizingly offers to keep seeing her- "but less. Not alone so much." It is a slap in the face, and college-aged Jane is devastated. In "The Return," Englishwomen Jan and Sarah visit Greece. There they must outwit an old man and his nephew who proposition them on a remote island. Athill turns this awkward situation into an ominous one by making the old man the only available boat driver. This is a stark shift in power, since Jan and Sarah can afford a Greek vacation while the old man only has three teeth.

It is the kind of dynamic one comes to expect from Athill by the book's end. The stories are kept interesting by their variety. Sometimes the woman is complicit in her own downfall; at other times she only imagines she is. And the losses, of power, companionship, identity or status, are not always bad outcomes. In the last story, "Buried," Enid Klein reconnects with her brother after he wrecks their car and they must hike through the farmland of their childhood to get back home.

Not all women like literary books. But every woman has had a relationship, a family, a growing up experience. Every woman has, at some time or another, been wounded in love. For these reasons, Athill's book has something to offer every woman. Midsummer Night In The Workhouse is a revealing and surprisingly quick read. It is literary without being stuffy, universally true without being hackneyed. Athill's voice rarely offers comfort, but I left her book feeling more comfortable about gendered relationships and my role in them.

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