The Complete Short Stories is a collection to be loved and cherished, from one of the finest short-story writers of the twentieth century. All stories performed unabridged by three star readers: Juliet Stevenson, Richard E. Grant and Emilia Fox. From the cruel irony of A member of the Family to the fateful echoes of The Go-Away Bird and the unexpectedly sinister The Girl I Left Behind Me, in settings that range from South Africa to the Portobello Road, Muriel Spark coolly probes the idiosyncrasies that lurk beneath the veneer of human respectability, displaying the acerbic wit and wisdom that are the hallmarks of her unique talent.
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I'm not sure how one goes about reviewing a collection of short stories, especially one as comprehensive as this one, with over 40 stories which have no common theme or motif. What this book demonstrated most clearly to this recently minted Muriel Spark fan was just how creative and imaginative this writer was. Her novels are certainly brimming with unusual characters and circumstances, but in the short story format she also allowed herself to play around with different genres, throwing in plenty of fantastical and paranormal elements. I can't say those were my favourite kind of stories, as I tended to favour those which had more in common with the Muriel Spark I adopted after listening to Memento Mori and Loitering with Intent, to name just those two. Quite a few of the stories took place in the African continent, and I supposed the author must have lived there at some point. A quick Google search and an article entitled "The First Half of Muriel Spark" by Roger Kimball yielded the following information:
"Muriel Spark’s sojourn in Africa was the opposite of pleasant: a failed marriage, poverty, little prospect of leaving before the end of the war, few friends with literary interests. (Doris Lessing was living someplace in Rhodesia at the time, but the two writers did not meet until many years later.) Nevertheless, she continued to write, poems mostly, and collected material for some of her best-known stories. Africa, as much as Edinburgh, formed her as a writer. It also made her an adult. It was in Africa, she says, that she “learned to cope with life.” “It was there that I learned to keep in mind … the essentials of our human destiny, our responsibilities, and to put in a peripheral place the personal sorrows, frights and horrors that came my way.”
Horrors there were aplenty. The racial situation was barbaric. The Afrikaner women with whom Muriel mingled were full of smug stories about how uppity blacks had been “fixed.” There was, for example, the farmer who discovered a young black boy standing outside the window of his wife’s room, peeping in at her while she breast-fed her baby. For this violation, the farmer shot the boy dead. The woman who told Spark this story only lamented that the farmer had been sent to prison for three years for killing the boy. “I was unable to speak,” Spark reports. “I simply stared at the woman.”"
Muriel Spark obviously used material from real life as creative fodder; the above true account was fictionalized by her in the first story in this collection, The Curtain Blown by the Breeze, one of my favourites because it demonstrates all the strengths which make me appreciate this writer so much: a sense of story with characters that are complex and interesting, an unflinching look at people at their worst, distinguished by a healthy dose of mordant humour.
In all, I'd say I probably fully enjoyed less than a third of the stories, but even those I didn't particularly take to overall had plenty of interesting elements that made them worthwhile, and those I did fully enjoy made for an excellent experience. A must for Muriel Spark lovers and those interested in exploring a writer with plenty of range.