Still fresh, dra­matic and un­canny

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS -

Satur­day Lunch with the Brown­ings By Pene­lope Mor­timer

TDaunt Books, 288pp, £9.99

ol­stoy’s fa­mous opener on un­happy fam­i­lies seems par­tic­u­larly ap­pro­pri­ate for Satur­day Lunch with the Brown­ings, 12 sto­ries that cap­ture the ten­sions of do­mes­tic life with fe­ro­cious pre­ci­sion. Each of the un­happy fam­i­lies fea­tured is cer­tainly un­happy in its own way. Pene­lope Mor­timer’s dex­ter­ous, vi­brant prose bur­rows deep into the ev­ery­day mo­ments that lead to points of cri­sis. Her sce­nar­ios are fresh, dra­matic and un­canny. The fa­mil­iar turns mon­strous, the dark thing that should never be said is always said.

Sixty years af­ter it was first pub­lished, the English au­thor’s only col­lec­tion of short sto­ries is full of bril­liantly de­tailed scenes of fam­ily life that could have been writ­ten yes­ter­day. Reprinted by Daunt Books as part of its re­dis­cov­ered clas­sics se­ries, it will hope­fully bring new read­ers to a writer whose books were in part over­shad­owed by her fa­mous mar­riage and di­vorce to fel­low writer John Mor­timer.

In an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion, Lucy Sc­holes talks about the way Mor­timer’s sto­ries are viewed as an ad­den­dum to her more fa­mous nov­els, par­tic­u­larly The Pump­kin Eater. This is de­spite the fact that most of the sto­ries fea­tured here were first pub­lished in the New Yorker. Sc­holes has in­ter­est­ing things on Mor­timer’s process, quot­ing the au­thor di­rectly: “I mined my life for in­ci­dents with a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle and an end, find­ing even the drea­ri­est of days con­tained nuggets of irony, farce, un­pre­dictable be­hav­iour.” Sc­holes also draws com­par­isons be­tween the trou­bled per­sonal lives of Mor­timer and writ­ers such as Sylvia Plath and Han­nah Gavron, not­ing that Mor­timer (who over­dosed twice) lived on into old age and rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity.

Daunt Books has done a ser­vice to read­ers to reis­sue this col­lec­tion. Right from the open­ing story, the ter­ri­fy­ing The Sky­light, we are plunged into a world where love and fury ex­ist in equal mea­sure, where un­savoury truths are doled out as eas­ily as cups of tea. Many of Mor­timer’s pro­tag­o­nists are un­lik­able – an odi­ous edi­tor on the look­out for or­gies, a par­son rac­ing through life at the ex­pense of those around him, mothers and fa­thers who are driven to vi­o­lence – but they are always com­pelling, lead­ing us down the rab­bit hole, leav­ing us adrift in the mad­ness.

A cou­ple of the sto­ries – The Man Who Loved Par­ties, The Rene­gade – have a slightly dis­jointed feel but this is only when judged against the heft of the rest of the col­lec­tion. Mor­timer’s dry wit is in ev­i­dence from the ti­tles alone. Such a Su­per Evening, Sec­ond Honey­moon and What a Lovely Sur­prise come with red flags at­tached.

What a Lovely Sur­prise closes the col­lec­tion with a bang. On her 39th birth­day, a mother feels suf­fo­cated by her fam­ily’s laboured cel­e­bra­tions: “A faint smell of burn­ing crept up from the kitchen. How won­der­ful it is, she told her­self sharply, to be loved.” The fuss they make over this one spe­cial day only high­lights the wider en­vi­ron­ment of ne­glect and poverty.

Sec­ond Honey­moon ex­plores the petty squab­bles of an older cou­ple abroad, and the fears and de­sires that mo­ti­vate their be­hav­iour. Such a Su­per Evening sees Mor­timer pok­ing fun at her own life when two lauded writ­ers with a large fam­ily are in­vited for din­ner and prove to be shock­ingly poor com­pany.

There is much here that re­calls the writ­ing of Mor­timer’s con­tem­po­raries Mar­garet Drabble and Doris Less­ing. But there are also strong par­al­lels with to­day’s writ­ers such as Elske Rahill, Helen Simp­son and Jenny Of­fill, all of whom of­fer cut-glass de­pic­tions of moth­er­hood and mar­riage.

In Satur­day Lunch with the Brown­ings, Mor­timer goes be­hind the fa­cade of mar­ried life – some­thing she un­der­stood well from her hus­band’s in­fi­deli­ties – to look at the vi­o­lence and be­trayal that sit close to love. In the su­perb ti­tle story, the un­rav­el­ling of a week­end lunch with the chil­dren is bru­tal not just for the fa­ther’s vi­o­lence to­wards his step­daugh­ter, but for the fact that it is no longer con­sid­ered sur­pris­ing. This dark event is just a weekly episode in the life of the Brown­ings. Mor­timer ex­pertly switches per­spec­tives in this story to give us mo­ments of empathy for each of her char­ac­ters, how­ever mon­strous they might ap­pear.

Other stand­out sto­ries are The Sky­light, a masterclas­s in sus­pense set against the back­drop of a malev­o­lent French coun­try­side; the tug-of-war be­tween a cou­ple for their chil­dren in I Told You So; and the mag­nif­i­cent Lit­tle Miss Perkins, where the nar­ra­tor watches an­other woman in a ma­ter­nity ward com­mit some­thing that is al­most be­yond words: “I know more about that woman, I thought, than any other per­son alive.”

Mor­timer brings us back through gen­er­a­tions with ease. So much has changed, so much has stayed the same. “My wife,” a char­ac­ter says at one point, “doesn’t un­der­stand me”. Pene­lope Mor­timer, on the other hand, un­der­stands it all.

Pene­lope Mor­timer: love and fury ex­ist in equal mea­sure

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