A score of stories

Rye, Landgate
Old photo of Rye’s Landgate

Joan Aiken
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.

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17 thoughts on “A score of stories

  1. Hi Chris! Catching up with you again in yet another medium. What a wonderful, thoughtful piece, it is such a pleasure for me to get this kind of feedback. I’m working on a new collection now, also for the Wonderful Small Beer Press, and as you say Joan Aiken had so many voices and styles it is quite a challenge deciding which to pick….come and visit at http://joanaiken.wordpress.com/
    best wishes,
    Lizza

    1. Good to hear from you again, Lizza! Just had a sneaky peek at your WordPress site and can’t wait to explore the comments you’ve already posted. Definitely a blog to follow.

      Thanks for your appreciative comments. I’m still catching up on loads of Joan’s back catalogue: I’ve just finished the Felix trilogy, and finally got round to properly reading Pride and Prejudice and so am ready to tackle Joan’s sequel; I’ve also got a ‘pre-owned’ proof copy of the complete Armitage short story collection, so I’ve got that to look forward to!

      I shall be adding to the two reviews I’ve already soon, so do look out for them.

  2. I can’t remember the story (and thanks for the loan!) but I think a monkeys wedding is a South African phrase for summer storms – the contrast between the heat and torrential downpours. Does that help?

    1. That sounds familiar — must re-read the stories sometime… Though I did put in the phrase about it involving neither a monkey nor a wedding as a teaser, the conundrum has come back to haunt me!

      As regards the loan, you’re very welcome — more to come, I think.

        1. Actually, a monkeys’ wedding is what South Africans call it when it rains while the sun is shining – a ‘sunshower’. This is from a Zulu idiom. In Afrikaans, it is a ‘jackal’s wedding’ with the understanding that a jackal marries a wolf’s wife..

            1. You had the part right about a weather condition!
              It will be interesting to see whether the story links in with another aspect of the typical “monkeys’ weddings” – that they are usually followed by the appearance of a rainbow.

  3. Anthologies of short stories deserve far greater popularity than they generally enjoy, especially when written by such master storytellers as Joan Aiken.
    I smiled wryly at your observation regarding the character utterances, where the current ‘expert’ writing advice is to use ‘said’ unremittingly, as being unpretentious and invisible. I have always tried to limit ‘saids’ – but must admit it needs a lot of care to place appropriate substitutes in ways which never seem contrived.
    Of course, that advice comes from the same writing schools which advocate elimination of most adverbs and adjectives.
    The subjects and treatment of the stories do seem what I would enjoy a lot. Pity they’ve mucked up the spelling …

    1. I have to say that when Aiken rings the changes with her utterance-verbs it doesn’t seem forced.
      Eliminating most adverbs and adjectives? In the case of Dan Brown I would say unhesitatingly yes.

      I don’t have a problem with American-English spelling in US texts, but it does annoy me when British editions keep American spellings in US writings but North American editions frequently Americanise British texts. It just suggests that some US publishers regard their readers as culturally more insular than Brits as well as emphasising a kind of cultural imperialism — horrible when Britons did it in their days of empire and cringeworthy in this 21st-century manifestation.

      Australians officially use US spellings I believe (eg Labor for Labour) — what happens in SA?

      1. South Africa uses UK spelling. Ironically enough, it is usually more up-to-date than than the American versions. Much of the latter harks back to the Pilgrim Fathers. Yet the Americans suffer under the delusion that it is they who have evolved.

  4. I have to admit, Joan Aiken is unfamiliar to me. Yet once again you have added to my reading list. I would love to peek into your library. I suspect it would open a whole new reading world for me. How do you find these gems?

    1. You’re too kind, Sari! One of the joys of having friends with overflowing bookcases is having a chance to browse their chosen reading matter, note overlaps and be intrigued by unfamiliar titles. I’m sure I’d enjoy peeking into your library too!

      Where do I find these gems? Many, many profligate hours of browsing I’m afraid…

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