The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam

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The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Fourteen gentle inoffensive tales of humour and come-uppance, with occasional touches of sadness. Simply and sharply written. More to them than meets the eye.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2007
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701177997

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The "Short Story" is still the Cinderella of fiction. Misunderstood, ignored, confined (all too often) to the kitchen. It is the preserve of "women's weeklies" and small-press publications, which even as a contributor you cannot help but feel are only read by other contributors.

It's hard to imagine why this perception should hold when many of the great tales adapted into movie classics were "mere" short stories: 2001 A Space Odyssey springs to mind... virtually all of the Sherlock stories... A Christmas Carol...

It is an art form of its own and one that not all can master. Perhaps that is true of the reader as well as the writer. Perhaps we need more practice at reading the short story. It's tempting to think that in our fast-pace, short-span world, these snippets would find an increasing niche, but the other sides of the argument are that for the author to publish an anthology, they must produce at least a novella of words but one with a dozen tales or more, each totally separate from the others... or the world of the weeklies beckons; added to which is the notion that 'reading' is one of those sinful pleasures - to slump in front of the TV is to simply be tired at the end of the day's labours, to switch it off, put the phone on hold, and pick up a book... that's an indulgence akin to sneaking off with a lover... so if we're going to do it, we want to dedicate real time to it... a couple of hours or so at least. Whereas to enjoy the short story is to have 20-minute-love-affairs, it's hard to feel you're not short-changing the author if you only read one. So we read more than one at a time - and those lose the plot, if you'll pardon the pun.

A plea then for space in all our lives for clandestine short story affairs, that require the half-hour escape, hidden guiltily in the bathroom or the lunch-break if you must... or maybe just as a tiny snatch of me time at any odd hour of the day, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine on the back step - or high city balcony.

Then: a good place to start rediscovering the charms of the art form is Jane Gardam's The People on Privilege Hill (and other stories).

Fourteen disparate tales - all gently told - and linked by a theme of growing older, gracefully or disgracefully according to choice.

The title piece tells the delightful tale of a misbegotten party for a departing missionary enlivened by the return of 'Old Filth' and his contemporaries, prejudices smattering the page as the rain falls, echoes of the days of Bertie and Jeeves in the silliness of names and choices of musical exuberance.

All of the misconceptions of relationships are captured in the most unlikely vignettes: an elderly unloved wife transposing her affections to a sad captive gorilla, or the unspoken thoughts of the son leaving for college and his parents so gl/sad to see him go. Traditional twists and amusants from the treasures of the thought-dead author, or the ghostly apparition on the fell. Sad inevitability in the Milly Ming or the Latter Days of Mr Jones capturing just how much the world has changed... or the delights of the Last Reunion which reminds us also just how little.

Gardam displays the consummate skill of the short-story-teller, which is that of the caricaturist, the ability to capture a personality in a few brief strokes. I particularly enjoyed the no-longer young Babette's answer-phone message: "This is Babette. I am quite able to take your call at the moment if you will tell me, first, who you are so that I can decide if it will be worth my while."

Or elsewhere: "Eleanor was not what you would call old, but she could remember steam". That doesn't just give you age, it gives you context, a notion of the changes by which we measure our lives. Steam. B&W television perhaps. Or lecturers in capes and purple stockings.

The characters clearly before us, she then spins a gentle tale of a few moments in their lives. Lovers taken and lost. Misunderstandings. Inspired choices. Pride, prejudice, opportunities taken and missed. All the minutiae of a moment and the reminder that all of our lives are just series of moments.

Privilege Hill is a collection of gentle stories that you could read to your grandmother, with the kind of sharp wit that would no doubt give her a secret smile.

But they're deeper than they look... so don't read them all at once.

If I've convinced you on the principle of the short story, but you fancy a change of theme...check out Revenge of the Lawn.

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Buy The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam at


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