Saturday, May 8, 2010

Persephone Reading Week: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes


I heard about Persephone Reading Week, a week devoted to reading books published by Persephone Books, from Frances at the great literary blog Nonsuch Book. It's hosted at the blog Paperback Reader. Since I have a number of Persephone titles waiting to be read, I decided to make a concerted effort to participate.

For my week of Persephone reading, I chose the wonderful Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. Panter-Downes was a prolific journalist and short story writer who was published regularly in the New Yorker magazine during the first part of the 20th century; the stories in this book appeared there October 1939 and December 1944. All of the stories take as their subject domestic life in Britain during World War 2.

Reading this collection was a pleasure, albeit often of the bittersweet kind. Tinged with sadness and irony, the stories feature many types of people- single, married, mistresses and adulterers, children, the poor and the wealthy and the middle class. The characters experience loneliness and brief moments of connection as they manage the isolation, privation, anxiety and more- all the many disruptions and chaos and helplessness of English life during the war. A young working woman living alone tries to reach out to a neighbor for companionship; a well-off woman cheerfully rids herself of a boarder who no longer needs her, only to feel an unnameable remorse at rebuffing another woman who does; an upper class woman simply cannot understand why the poor mother she tries to help can't seem to keep herself or her children in tolerable order. In the title story, a young woman having an affair with a married man who's left for the war must decide whether to contact his family to find out if he's still alive.

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is a tender, affectionate portrait of people doing their best in difficult times- even if their best isn't the best. Panter-Downes shows loving empathy for her characters and writes with impressive economy. Each story is no more than six or seven pages but she creates vivid characters and immersing worlds. Of course, reading it straight through, the mood from one will shadow the next and what emerges is more than the sum of its parts. The collection reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Strout's wonderful novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge; this book isn't a novel in stories but detail and emotion slowly accrete as each story acts as a mosaic piece in a larger picture of wartime English life. It's a beautiful collection from a skilled craftswoman from whose work I hope to see more collections in the future.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.