The Darkness of Wallis Simpson is the title story. Wallis Simpson was the twice-divorced woman who won the heart of the late Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, our current Queen’s uncle. This provoked a constitutional crisis and the uncrowned king was asked to choose between her and the throne. He chose her and forced his shy, stammering brother to become the reluctant monarch. The royal family, and the British public, never forgave the pair of them.
This story deals with the tricky subject of dementia and the equally tricky subject of Wallis Simpson herself, who was not a particularly like-able figure.
We see the world through the eyes of a bed-bound Wallis as she struggles to make sense of these last few weeks of her life and desperately searches through the remaining fragments of her memories. Rose Tremain does a beautiful job of evoking the voice of Wallis (I assume the biographical details are accurate) and giving us an unsentimental – but very moving – view of this much-maligned woman.
The other stories in the book are equally brilliant. We move from the demented brain of an American socialite, into the frustrated life of a bored Irish man on his forty-sixth birthday (How it stacks up), and then into the twisted mind of an East German border guard (The Beauty of the Dawn Shift), and now into the cold heart of a lawyer (The Death of an Advocate, and next into the tragic life of a Parisian gas fitter (The Over-Ride) and… there are 12 stories in all, and they are all little masterpieces.
What I liked about the stories: the incredible ability of the author to speak in the voice of the main character so that, even where the protagonist is pretty unlikable, I identified and sympathised with his or her predicament. I admired the way she could create a varied range of utterly believable worlds for her characters to inhabit (even when the story was pretty far-fetched, as in Moth).
What I didn’t like: now (and OK, I know I am scraping the barrel here) I have to take issue with the factual accuracy of the final story in this collection, Peerless. This story is about a man’s struggle to find meaning in his retirement and to come to terms with a traumatic event in his youth. The catalyst for the successful resolution of the story is a penguin called Peerless. The man sets about collecting ice to make the penguin happy because, as most people assume, penguins like the cold. Actually, as I am reliably informed by my eldest daughter, there are very few species of penguins who live in the Antarctic – most prefer warmer climates. So, my bet is that Peerless wouldn’t have enjoyed the icy baths supplied for him. (Now, I did say I was scraping the barrel …..)
I am glad I discovered Rose Tremain. I believe this is her only collection of short stories and I am now on a mission to read some of her novels. Any recommendations from anyone?