Sunday, 23 June 2013

Short Story Sunday - Victoria Hislop

The Last Dance and Other Stories - Victoria Hislop

Victoria Hislop's collection of stories was published in 2012 and features ten stories:
  • The Priest and the Parrot
  • The Kafenion
  • Aflame in Athens
  • The Zacharoplasteion
  • The Periptero
  • One Cretan Evening
  • The Butcher of Karapoli
  • The Lesson
  • The Pine Tree
  • The Last Dance
Each story features an illustration on its title page by British illustrator Quinton Winter (what a fabulous name!). Do you like/dislike illustrations in books, or are you indifferent? I don't really care for illustrations in novels, but I absolutely love them in short fiction. Placed on the title page, illustrations make a collection very easy to navigate and encourage me to think about the story in a more visual sense (I usually focus on plot and dialogue with descriptions taking a secondary role). I don't usually look at them before reading the story, but I always return to look when I finish reading; it's interesting to see what the focus of the illustration is and whether there is any cross-over between the mental images that the story created for me and the images that the illustrator, in conjunction with the author or editor, chose to create for the story.

I found the collection a bit up and down, although at only 146 pages and written in clear, simple prose it is certainly a quick read. The first story was one of my favourites and instantly brought Roald Dahl to mind: a simple, human story where the characters try to mould life in a certain direction, but the unstoppable desires of man (love, hate, covetousness, in this case love) take over and the characters are just incidental players in the story of life.

Some of the other stories displayed this same vivid spark (The Periptero was another one of my favourites), but others seemed not fully formed (just an idea, not a complete story) or poorly developed with cliched and facile conclusions. For example, The Zacharoplasteion (patisserie in Greek - translating a Greek term into a French term to garner an English meaning!), really, really, really annoyed me. The story focuses on Angeliki who works for her mother in their small-town patisserie. Despite the fact that she has a dutiful daughter who works hard in the family business, Sofia frequently gives vent to her frustration that her daughter is now twenty-nine years old, and, unlike her contemporaries in the town, is still unmarried, "Why was Angeliki not like other girls? Why was she not married?" If the story had stayed with these two characters and developed the mother-daughter relationship I think it would have turned out well. Instead, Angeliki is single because she has already met her "prince charming" and knows that in acquiring a mate only perfection will do. Some time previous to the action of the story, a handsome stranger comes into the shop,
"His laughter and his good nature completely overthrew Angeliki. For five years she had worked there each day, and not once had she served a customer who had made her smile like this. She felt that all the ice-cream in the nearby cabinet would melt in his warmth. As well as taking a delighted interest in what was in the shop, he smiled: a deep, life-loving smile. She had never met anyone who was so relaxed and at ease with himself."
Any man who can melt a cabinet of ice-cream at ten paces is definitely a keeper! Although Angeliki has not really met this man, he just popped into her shop, had a brief conversation with her and bought some marzipan, "she was both made and unmade by the encounter." And, "Angeliki knew that her heart had been woken, not broken." I found this cliched and utterly cringe worthy, but I suppose if you believe in the lightening-bolt of love at first sight then it might not seem so bad. In some of the other stories the names of the characters have a meaning for the story (Aflame in Athens features two badly suited lovers: Irini (peace) and Fotis (coming from the Greek word for fire), maybe the fact that the mother is called Sofia (wisdom) shows that Ms Hislop does not believe in the sentimental concept of the prince charming and love at first sight, which could explain why the character of Angeliki seems so poorly developed.

Other elements of the collection which seemed slightly ridiculous to me were: an evening of music undoing years of serious sibling rivalry and the certainty that time will cause an over-protective and controlling mother to accept her son's partner.

It may sound like I really hated this collection. I didn't. Some of the stories were beautifully crafted and very enjoyable indeed. The other stories, which I disliked, or had some issues with, will probably only serve to make this book unforgettable.

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