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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Collection of Stories, 13 July 2009
J C E Hitchcock (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This collection of short stories is the second book by Jane Gardam which I have read, the first being the novel "A Long Way from Verona". The two books are very different. The novel, written at a much earlier stage in the writer's career, is concerned with youth and childhood, being narrated by a thirteen-year-old girl. The stories contained in "Going into a Dark House", by contrast, were written when Ms Gardam was in her mid sixties, and the themes of old age and death run throughout them. The title of the collection, on a literal level, refers to one character's dislike of entering an unlit house at night, but on a metaphorical level it can easily be seen as a reference to death.

Thus "Blue Poppies" deals with the last day in the life of an old lady who dies while on a visit to a stately home with her daughter. "Chinese Funeral" is about the unsettling effect that the funeral of the title has on a group of tourists in China. "Zoo-Zoo" is about an aged nun being driven by two of her colleagues to the hospice where she will spend her last days, and about the strange incident which befalls them on the return journey. "The Meeting House" is a ghost story, although unlike most works within that genre it is not an exercise in horror but rather a story which ends peacefully and tranquilly. Ms Gardam clearly does not hold with M.R. James' dictum that in a fictitious ghost story the ghost should be malevolent or odious.

"Dead Children", despite its title, does not deal directly with death, at least not in the literal sense of that word. The central character, Alison, is another old lady whose children are still alive but "dead" to her in the sense that they have grown apart and that she does not have the same emotional bond with them that she did when they were young. This story, like "The Meeting House", contains supernatural elements in that Alison is able to step back in time, to see her children again as they were forty years earlier.

"Bevis" and "The Damascus Plum" represent departures from the prevailing sombre mood of the collection. The former story is narrated by a teenage girl who becomes caught up in her older cousin's love life. The latter tells the story of a teacher and her attempts to tutor a highly intelligent, but prosaic and unimaginative, Swiss teenager for Common Entrance examination to the public schools, and of the sumptuous meal she cooks for him in an attempt to capture his imagination. This story reminded me of Karen Blixen's "Babette's Feast", another literary description of a sumptuous meal. The difference between the two stories is that Babette is a professional chef from a top-class Parisian restaurant who prepares her feast from the most exquisite and costly ingredients. Jane Gardam's protagonist, by contrast, is an amateur who prepares her meal from products available in the local shops in her corner of East Kent.

Many of these stories, in fact, have a strong sense of place, conjuring up the atmosphere of a particular English region. Like "The Damascus Plum", "Zoo-Zoo" is also set in East Kent, "The Meeting House" in the Lancashire Pennines, "Bevis" in the moorlands of Northumberland. It came as no surprise to learn that Ms Gardam has homes in both East Kent and the Pennines.

Despite their subject-matter, these stories are not morbid or depressing. They are beautifully written; Jane Gardam combines highly-developed powers of description with the ability to write brilliant dialogue and to create memorable characters such as Molly Fielding, the wicked but spirited ninety-four year old who features in the title story. (This is one of a linked sequence of three stories telling of a formidable Edwardian matriarch and how her close- perhaps too close- relationship with an Italian photographer affects the lives of her daughter and granddaughter). These stories are at times moving, at times sardonic, at times even humorous, and are always suffused with a sense of human warmth. On the strength of this volume, Ms Gardam must be regarded as one of our leading short story writers.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is BRILLIANT!, 11 May 2001
This collection of short story is BRILLIANT! I first came across Jane Gardam's name years and years ago, as she is the author of a Tales of the Unexpected episode ("The Tribute", collected in The Sidmouth Letters, another brilliant collection of short-stories) - I had never read anything by Gardam until I found this fantastic collection quite by chance and her name immediately rang a bell. I bought it without thinking twice and this book is one of my best buys ever! It's probably the best Jane Gardam book and one of my fave titles of all times! It sounds a bit crazy but Jane Gardam is really a XXth century Jane Austen (I'm not the first one saying such a thing!). There are eight short-stories collected in this volume and each of them featuring absolutely ordinary people, just like you and me, and something happening to them, as it could happen to anyone which makes you think the ordinary is absolutely extraordinary. You just need to observe carefully to find out deeper truths and meanings. Even ghosts, as you will find out when reading this book, used to be amazingly ordinary! These stories have all a twist in the end, which is a typical Jane Gardam landmark. I particularly enjoyed the two ghost stories in this collection "Dead Children" and "The Meeting House" and I'm sure you will find yourselves reading them over and over again. This book also contains a long three-parts story "Telegony" portraying in an exquisite way three generations of women and two very different cultures (English and Italian) attracting and inevitably clashing against each other, and believe me, Jane Gardam seems to know Italy very well indeed! "Telegony" is in my opinion a masterpiece, not only is the plot highly imaginative, but the characterisation is sensational, the wit and irony of the author shining through the dialogues and the portrait of people and places. Jane Gardam catches your attention, ipnotizes you and in the end you feel you are almost part of the story. When the story is over you feel you long for a sequel. If a writer is able to portray life in such a way what is he/she if not a first-rate artist?
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sheer bliss, 18 Sept. 2009
Eileen Shaw "Kokoschka's_cat" (Leeds, England) - See all my reviews
This is a collection of nine short stories by Jane Gardam who writes, as always, like an angel.

In the title story an old Quaker meeting house with a falling-down barn attached, is situated miles from a local village where its adherents live. When a gipsy-ish couple from Tyneside move into the half-ruined barn with their undernourished child, the tolerant Quakers only ask that there be two hours silence for their meetings each Sunday, but the husband refuses and sets up two radios and a chainsaw. One day, as suddenly as they arrived, they disappear, and the Quakers are told they were killed in a car accident on the nearest main road. Then the caretaker begins to see apparitions... An eerie, delicate little story, untypical of the others in this collection, it nonetheless resonates in the memory.

Another story, Bevis, concerns cousins, Jilly, 18, who has been removed from an unsuitable liaison, and her younger relative, who is the narrator. Perhaps because she is at least five years younger, she is not told the full circumstances of Jilly's transgression. When Jilly takes her on a bicycle ride, it is to the new home of her former lover, but it is the younger girl who is sent to the house with a note, and who delivers it to the person that she, in her imperfect understanding, believes to be Jilly's lover. It is only later that she discovers her mistake. The reader knows only what the younger girl knows, up until the closing sentence. This is a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek, delightful story, but not without disturbing aspects. That the two girls do not even like each other provides a link hard to dismiss with real people doing real, and often engagingly foolish, things.

I find this realist, hard-edged quality gives the stories a marvellous feeling of verisimilitude, as if we are discovering each moment of events as they happen, almost living them with the characters. Character creation is one of Jane Gardam's finest skills, which she turns to great effect in all her settings (and her range in time and geography is no less impressive). She does so with such delicate, spare, accurate prose that reading anything she writes is sheer bliss.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful Collection, 17 Jan. 2012
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
A lovely, very varied collection of stories by a master storyteller. I particularly enjoyed 'Bevis' - the story of a surprising adolescent love affair, 'The Damascus Plum', in which a hardworking English teacher cooks a sublime Sunday lunch and tea for a hungry Swiss orphan, and 'Zoo-Zoo', in which the lives of three nuns, all lonely in their different ways, are changed subtly by an encounter with a wild cat. As always with short story collections, some read more strongly than others, but this collection is remarkable in its consistently high level of writing. A wonderful read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Luminous prose!, 26 April 2014
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This review is from: Going Into A Dark House (Kindle Edition)
I love Jane Gardam's writing. It is so luxurious that I find that I read her books slowly to savour the experience.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, 23 Jan. 2015
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A collection of intriguing short stories beautifully written as usual.
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