Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Small lives, much pain: Mareve Binchy's early Short Stories

      Maeve Binchy. Victoria Line, Central Line (1978 & 1980) These two collections were published separately, then republished in a single volume in 1993. The stories are Binchy’s earliest published fiction, and they contradict her reputation as a “sympathetic and often humorous” portrayer of life. Almost all of them describe women who are more or less unaware of why they lose out in the game of life, or who are lucky simply to endure. Like Alice Munro's, her portrayals of ordinary people is ruthless: she knows that human beings are anything but perfect, that they are weak cruel, feckless, vain, indifferent, self-centred, and more often than not unable or unwilling to change.
    Binchy’s especially good at showing how women fail to assert themselves, and define their value through their relationships with men. Some of these are heartbreaking: why do so many smart women put up with cads? Class has something to do with it: all her protagonists are middle or working class, and along with their men are constrained by aspirations of respectability which limit or distort their self-expression, and too often make them believe that they deserve the tawdry or painful love lives they settle for.
     With a few exceptions, we readers have the flash of insight at the end of the tale but the characters do not. It seems to me that Binchy in her later works learned to enlarge the sympathy and reduce the judgements. Or perhaps her growing confidence in her own abilities enabled her to write about women who knew what they wanted and set about getting it, a story that becomes the Binchy formula. At any rate, compared to these short stories, her later work seems to me to show a deliberate softening of the hard judgments that her only-too-accurate portrayals here imply. One could also argue that her work reflects the increasing power and self-awareness of women. That would make these early stories a collection of documentaries of women’s lives in the mid-20th century, accurately rendered.
     Recommended. ***

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