Book Review: She-Clown and Other Stories

She-Clown and Other Stories, by Hannah Vincent, is a collection of sixteen short stories featuring women recognisable from ordinary social situations. Their everyday lives require that they compromise their potential in order to survive the hand chosen or dealt. They are described as feminist stories and this is accurate in a myriad of ways. Some of the women are chafing against the restrictions of marriage or motherhood. Others are pushing for their right to be themselves within a family that expects them to be something else – a facsimile or ideal. The tales are succinct, layered and fierce in their observations. They are also funny and refreshing in the spotlight shone on behaviours.

The titular story tells of an entertainer working at a child’s birthday party. The mothers congregate over wine and complaints about husbands and children. On arrival, She-Clown is introduced.

“‘You probably know half the people here,’ the mother said, turning to Charlie, and it was true that Charlie did recognise some of the faces. One of the men had sat in her car. She had given him a blowjob. She recognised his moccasin shoes. Another man, in a pink Ralph Lauren shirt, had fucked her in a laundry room among mountain bikes and drying washing while his wife gave out party bags.”

Charlie goes through her routine, aware of how she is being watched by some of the men. The children accept everything offered as their due, refusing to be impressed.

Other stories tell of parents called to schools – teachers expecting them to sort out a child’s behaviour where it doesn’t fit with the expected agenda.

Single parents push against their situation, and against their lack of agency in the face of authority figures.

Working mothers juggle the satisfaction of their professional lives, trying to find balance with family needs amidst parental criticism.

One story features a young couple recently returned from travelling, who are considering going down the road of motherhood. A catching up is required of one of them if they are to remain together. Love is all very well but people change over time and have diverging desires and expectations.

Not all of the women’s lives revolve around children.

Carnival offers the reader a young women whose office life demands she dress up (never well enough) and accept her boss’s disturbing behaviour. Making a fuss is frowned upon.

I enjoyed the stories featuring older women, many of whom behave badly in the eyes of their offspring. One mother gives her grandson an inappropriate gift, watching carefully for her daughter’s reaction. The grown up daughter of a controlling mother finds a novel way to exert her will when the mother is hospitalised.

These power plays between family members are presented with insight and wit.

In The Mermaid and the Tick a young couple go on holiday abroad at the behest of the husband. The wife is compliant, submitting to his plans despite reservations. When he notices she is fitting in better than he expected and that, while his needs are met, she can enjoy herself without him, his enjoyment is not as he anticipated.

Many of the men featured do not come out well in these stories, mainly due to their habits of wanting wives to revere them while they look lasciviously elsewhere.

A few of the stories offer more surreal elements, set in a world that may be futuristic. One explores how important it actually is for experiences to be real or useful if they are enjoyed by those who partake. Another is set at a dinner party where nobody knows who invited them or the purpose of the evening. There is a hankering for the past, or a might have been present, yet women continue to behave as others expect them to – even in the face of impending chaos.

The Sparrow is set on a successful doctor’s retirement day. It has a poignancy wound around why she ended up in the profession.

“‘Couldn’t be more proud’ is an expression of a surfeit of pride, and that wasn’t David. It wasn’t Daddy’s way either. I assumed it would please my father to have me follow him into medicine, and at a time when there were far fewer women doctors than there are now, but he was more concerned with Howard and his career, for all the good that did either of them. It will be good to have more time for my brother after today.”

It is interesting to consider the drivers in decision making – how women are conditioned to be pleasing. The denouement of this story is quietly moving.

Another moving story in the collection is 3 o’clock which is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she struggles with the tasks necessary to enable her to leave the house – remembering to take her smart bag and good purse, doing up the buttons on her coat – voices from the past haunt her. Each time she opens her fridge she hears ‘Close the door, it costs me money every time you go in there!‘ As she does her very best to make herself presentable she hears her mother-in-law say ‘You could wear the same outfit, Clem, and it wouldn’t look so smart.‘ Oh for more kindness within families…

I commend this collection to you for the variety of themes explored and the assiduity with which they are presented. The lightness of the writing belies the intricacy of the narrative. An entertaining and deeply satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Myriad Editions.

Book Review: The Weaning

The Weaning, by Hannah Vincent, tells the story of a childminder burdened with a terrible history. Bobbi has all the necessary training and certificates. She cherishes the children in her care. She is trying to fill a void in her life with other people’s babies.

The tale opens with an interview. Nikki works in PR, her husband, Rob, is a writer. They want their six month old son, Marcel, to be looked after for a few days each week.

Bobbi quickly settles into their routine. When alone in their home she shows little respect for their privacy or property but grows fond of Marcel. She takes him to the same park where she took her own children when they were young. She daydreams about the boy’s future. A few days a week are not enough to satisfy Bobbi’s need. She will drop everything when Nikki or Rob call on her for help.

At a signing class with Marcel, Bobbi spots a poster asking for child-minding volunteers. A youth worker is running a support group for young people, some of whom have babies. Bobbi applies and, at the firstĀ  meeting, is introduced to Kim and Connor. They are being watched by social services who are concerned for the well-being of their little daughter, Jade. To give the young couple some time alone together, Bobbi agrees to babysit.

Back at her flat Bobbi chats to her own children, Lily and Jonny. They are not always receptive. She is also growing closer to a new neighbour, Fox, but worries that her children would disapprove of her being in a relationship. They are difficult enough to communicate with. She will not allow Fox to visit.

Bobbi’s mother is in a care home, her mind drifting away. What is a mother if she cannot be there for her children?

Bobbi seeks an opportunity to bring Marcel and Jade together. Her behaviour is making Nikki wary.

A sense of foreboding permeates the writing. The key elements of Bobbi’s life, which provide its purpose and reason, feel increasingly out of kilter. She makes adjustments others have recommended but is not happy with the changes these bring.

Fox wishes to help Bobbi but believes she must face up to hard truths she has not shared with him. He has been listening to local gossip. In stripping away the scaffolding she has built around her life, her house of cards collapses – the result is devastating.

This book is dark in the best possible way. Even if, as I did, the central tenet is guessed before it is revealed, tension is retained. The denouement packed an unexpected punch. I was momentarily felled.

The writing flows, succinct and penetrating within a structure that perfectly balances compulsive engagement with storytelling. A stunning work that I read in one time forgotten sitting. Highly recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.