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Thursday, 27 April 2017

Book review - The Japanese Girl

Winston Graham is one of my many favourite authors. I first encountered him with the paperback Marnie (1961), and then discovered his Poldark novels (the first published in 1945). Side by side with these, I read a number of his suspense and historical novels, too. The Japanese Girl (1971) seems to be his only collection of short stories; their publication dates range from 1947 to 1971, though there is no indication when each individual tale was published.  

It’s a mixed bag, and not all of the fourteen were successful for me; yet it’s definitely a worthwhile read. According to Graham, ‘The Japanese Girl’ stemmed from a chance meeting with a Japanese girl in a train to Brighton. The story indeed begins in this manner, with Jack the narrator smitten by her: ‘You couldn’t call her good-looking but just something about her appealed to me and made me feel queer, and God knows I’m no womaniser…’ (p8)  He is married, though the relationship has gone sour; his wife Hettie ‘was like a may-fly or something, beautiful for a day.’ (p10)

The narrator works as an assistant cashier for a big London dock firm. Boring job, a boring life, really. He engineered another chance meeting with the Japanese girl and invited her to join him for a drink in a ‘quite nice pub… She didn’t say no, and that’s how it all began’ (p12) He embarked on an affair with Yodi, the Japanese girl. As time went on, they dreamed of running away together, travelling abroad. But for that they needed plenty of money. He decided to rob the firm, small sums each week, to build up a nest-egg. She agrees to help him. Inevitably, it doesn’t quite work out.

‘The Medici Ear-ring’ is another first-person story, with the narrator being an impecunious painter. One of his models was Lucille, who ‘had the colouring I like: autumn-tinted hair and short-sighted sleepy eyes with umber depths to them.’ Lucille was the daughter of a friend, Bob who enjoyed showing off an ancient ear-ring his family had acquired. Then, one night, during a card game of chance where money was lost, the ear-ring goes missing. The mystery tried the friendship of all those present. A twist ending; possibly an early foray into the realm of the unreliable narrator concept.

‘Cotty’s Cove’ is set in Cornwall, possibly in the Poldark period. Lavinia Cotty was a 35-year-old spinster. When she could get away from caring for her ailing father, she’d spend time in the quite cove and dream of poetry and a little fiction – until she discovered a man washed up on the shingle. An atmospheric tale about unrequited love. The cove can be found on any large-scale map of Perranporth beach, just south of Wheal Vlow adit.

Graham has the pleasant knack of putting the reader in the scene, whether it’s that cove or elsewhere: ‘… the frost has come down like thin icing sugar on branch and brick and flag, and the pools in the dented road are glazing over like the eyes of a man dying.’ (p80) Or this: ‘The bay windows spread wide like an alderman’s waistcoat.’ (p76)  I particularly liked this: ‘Then with sweat crawling all over him like a nest of worms, he jerked ahead.’ (p86)

‘At the Chalet Lartrec’ comes of ‘being benighted on the Bernina Pass in the first snow of winter’, Graham says. The narrator, Major Vane, a British officer attached to UNESCO found himself caught in a snow-storm. ‘The clouds were lowering all around like elephants’ bellies…’ (p99) He had to get out often so he could clear the windscreen: ‘The snow was soft in my face, like walking into a flight of cold wet moths…’ (p100) He creates eeriness with few words: ‘There was no one about, and the wind whistled through the slit between the houses like an errand boy with bad teeth.’ (p100) He obtains shelter at the chalet Lartrec, where he learns of his host’s recent past in the uprising of Hungary in 1956. Another fine twist in this tale, too.

‘The Cornish Farm’ is about a property the narrator and his wife purchase. There is talk of a violent history in the farm’s recent past. This too has plenty of atmosphere, as well as humour: ‘… it depressed me to discover the squalor in which so many people live. Or perhaps it is only people who want to sell their houses who live that way. It also depressed me to discover the wickedness of estate agents. After a time one gets tired of being shown into the “well-equipped” kitchen to find it dominated by an enormous stove installed about the year of Gladstone’s wedding and smoking from every crack; then, coughing heartily and with eyes smarting, to be led through a broken glass door into the “conservatory” which in fact is a lean-to shed with a little stove of its own where all the real cooking is done…’ (p125) A tale of mystery and perhaps madness; the reader must decide.

‘The Basket Chair’ is a ghost story – or is it? Julian Whiteleaf had his first coronary when he was staying with his niece Agnes and her husband Roy Paynter. He was careful with his money, despite having been bequeathed a vast sum by one of his psychic society’s patrons. Now, he agreed the couple could look after him and he would pay £5 per week towards his keep. Over time, he noticed strange sounds in the house. The basket chair in his bedroom seemed to move of its own volition and creak ever so slightly; he was convinced he was finally witnessing a psychic event… A clever tale in the Roald Dahl tradition.

‘Jacka’s Fight’ concerns Jacka Fawle who moved from Helston in Cornwall to find his fortune in America; when he had done so, he would send for his wife and children. He was a godly man and scrimped and saved to this end. One day in the early 1890s he made friends with a number of Cornishmen who were promoting a fellow in the boxing ring. Temptation is offered, to make a killing… The culmination of the story is the five pages of the big fight: the upstart contender Fitz against the champion Corbett. The telling is as bruising as the fight itself, full of tension: ‘In the fifth round it appears as if Fitz is done. His lips are swollen, the eye half closed, his nose bleeding, his body crimson all over, part with the blows it has received, part from the blood on Corbett’s gloves…’ (p203) An excellent pugilistic tale.

Finally, there’s ‘But for the Grace of God’, a tale of the Christ just before and after the crucifixion, movingly told by the irreverent yet finally enlightened Jesus Bar-Abbas.

At the book’s publication, the Sunday Times said, ‘Real versatility in setting and background.’ That sums up this collection. If you appreciate short story writing, you should enjoy many of these examples. 

[Coincidence: my birthday is the same as his; he was born forty years earlier. He died in 2003, aged 95].

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