The Monkey’s Wedding: and Other Stories Small Beer Press 2011
In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.
This score of contributions (including the introduction) reminds me of how much I enjoyed reading her short stories whenever they appeared in paperback. Though written in a variety of tones (there are ghost tales, horror stories, travellers’ accounts, tales of requited and unrequited love) they retain the very best features displayed by all those successful purveyors of anecdotes that we might have encountered: the mesmerising raconteur in the pub, the illuminating extempore speaker at a conference, the entertaining travelling companion, all following in the tradition of the tellers of Kinder- und Hausmarchen. Like many a tall story, there is enough familiar stuff mixed in with the fanciful to make you almost believe it is true, or mostly true, or very likely, or deserving to be true.
And we mustn’t forget Joan’s writing skills. For instance, the descriptions and instances of reported speech read so easily that one is never aware of the care that must have gone into their crafting. Opening a page at random (“Spur of the Moment”) I find that she rings the changes on the manner of character utterances (called, asked, panted, gasped as well as said), but when I first read it I wasn’t aware of her consciously creating any variety, just the rhythm of the narration which pushed me on to the dénouement (“Perhaps we’d both better begin at the very beginning,” she suggested).
All the stories have their strengths, their images, their echoes, but a few will linger a lot longer in my mind: “Reading in Bed” for its atmospheric recreation of an Eastern European folktale; “The Paper Queen”, one of at least two stories which must surely pay tribute to her native town of Rye in Sussex (Rohun or Rune in this tale, Ryme elsewhere); and the bittersweet story that gives its name to the collection, “The Monkey’s Wedding” (which, strangely, involves neither a monkey nor a wedding). The settings also vary widely like a chocolate box selection, ranging from Wales and Ireland to France and Poland via the middle of the ocean, all given a coating of the whimsy or a suggestion of a shiver.
Aiken aficionados must be grateful to Small Beer Press for publishing this story collection, many unpublished before now or virtually unobtainable because they first appeared in the 1950s. Although the tales are quintessentially British the publishers, apart from the occasional spelling change (“favorite” for “favourite”, “labor” for “labour”), seem to have respected the texts by making no obvious adaptation for a North American audience. Lizza Aiken’s introduction, “The Making of a Storyteller”, nicely complements Joan’s with some biographical details, her modus operandi as a writer and her meticulous attention to detail. This is a volume to keep, to re-read and to pass on to discerning young relatives.