Book Review

Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys

unprecedented: i enjoy a book of short stories cover to cover

As anyone scanning through the titles of the books I choose to comment on here at TriumphoftheNow.com, I don’t read short stories very often. Actually, that’s factually inaccurate as I often read short stories online and in magazines, but I don’t read collections or books of short stories very often.

It’s a classically English opinion to hold and one that is relentlessly – and probably quite fairly – mocked by writers from other countries, including – your man crush Monday and mine – the Argentinian London indie lit fave, Fernando Sdrigotti. I was thinking of a particular essay of his when I wrote that comment, but I can’t find it so you’ll just have to guess what he said. Boohoo.

For me, novels are a big chunk of something, poems are bitesize chunks of something else. Short stories, collected in a book, I always find lacking.

I’ve never read a book of short stories where I’ve loved every one and I’ve never read a book of short stories where I haven’t confused myself desperately seeking a narrative connection to link the pieces that usually isn’t there. Maybe books like this – Till September Petronella by Jean Rhys, part of that Penguin Modern Classics mini book series I like – are the solution.

Till September Petronella contains only four stories, all of different lengths, most of them with conspicuously different settings and situations and all of them – in my opinion – beautiful and affecting works of fiction.

The first story is about a young, sickly, white boy living with his expat father in the Caribbean, along with his father’s second wife, who is black. The marriage is deeply unhappy and the husband is severely abusive, and when he dies his wife is, unsurprisingly, happy. The boy – superior, racist, stupid – misreads (and cruelly misjudges) his stepmother’s psychologically-necessary purging of her awful husband’s possessions as crass iconoclasm. It’s an intelligent and nuanced text OR it’s very racist and I’m imbuing it with a subtext that is not really there. Let’s move on.

The longest story in the book is the titular one, and it’s about a chorus girl who’s just fluffed her “one shot at the big time” in London in the Summer of 1914. September, Petronella thinks, she feels, she knows, is when everything will come back together, when she will stop boozing and letting sleazy men pick her up. Petronella is unhappy, but after the Summer things can only get better, she’s sure of it. Well, the reader knows what’s coming at the end of that Summer and her desperate, non-devout hopefulness will come to nothing. The fact that Rhys doesn’t spell out what will happen in September (at no point does the action flash forward, or allude to geopolitical events with a knowing narratorial tone) is what makes me feel more certain in my reading of the first story. Of course I read it correctly, I was being stupid. Please don’t cancel me, I have a dog.

please don’t cancel me, i have a dog

The final two, shorter pieces, are more Gothic and sinister in tone. One is about an old woman who, convalescing in hospital, has her hair cut excessively short by an overzealous barber and promptly wastes away, while the final, only about 300 word, piece is a gorgeous bit of flash horror about a woman approaching her previous home and realising that she is a ghost, haunting it.

All four pieces here are powerful and stirring, Rhys’ writing is great: direct and evocative. I haven’t read her since I raced through Wide Sargasso Sea when an undergraduate, but I’ve considered reading Good Morning, Midnight for over a decade so will definitely get to it soonish!

Anyway, thus ends a short post. Cubby and I are en route to meet my sister at the airport and I need to get ready to fake being a big fun, stable, older brother for a week so I need to conserve my energy. I’m very happy with my outfit, so that’s something. My lovely baby blue sailor lapel jumpsuit. Nice. Sweet dreams, readers!


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