Posted on October 14, 2016
Death and madness in small packages
This week I’m reviewing two shorter books – a collection of poetry, and a (very tiny) collection of short stories.
Although these books at first seem very different (one is poetry by a 21st-century man and the other short stories by a 19th-century woman), both deal with universal human themes: death and madness, loss and grief, rage and insanity. They are also both absolutely brilliant. These stories may come in small packages, but they pack an enormous punch.
49. Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber
In 2014 Michel Faber’s wife, Eva, died of cancer. Although Faber hadn’t completed many poems before, he found himself drawn to poetry as he sat by Eva’s deathbed in the final days of her life, and after she died he wrote even more. Undying is his only published collection of poetry, and it contains poems about the entire course of his relationship with Eva, but most particularly their final years together – from her diagnosis to her death.
Because of the very raw subject matter of this collection, it’s no surprise that it can be difficult, even painful to read. Some of the poems are love poems and have beautiful language and a melancholic tone; but the majority put the gory, suppurating details of cancer into the poetic form, in such a way that these poems drip with disillusionment, disgust and rage (on this last, read ‘Don’t Hesitate to Ask’). Faber dedicates poems to every small aspect of what it is like to live with the disease – from Eva wanting to die, to Michel’s ‘self-indulgent’ emotions, to the cats forgetting about her, and Michel eventually letting her plants die and sleeping on her side of the bed – and yet Faber always manages to indicate to us that there are still greater depths, under the surface, which even poetry cannot plumb. In the introduction to this collection Faber writes, “I wish I’d lived into my nineties, with Eva at my side, and never written these things.” Sadly that is not what happened, and now we have these incredible poems to read.
50. The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wall-Paper is one of Penguin’s Little Black Classics, and this dinky little book contains Gilman’s classic story ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’, as well as two others: ‘The Rocking Chair’ and ‘Old Water’. I’d never read anything by Gilman before but, oh boy, I can see why the titular story is a classic. ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ is written from the perspective of a woman whose husband takes her to a country manor to have rest and seclusion for her ‘hysteria’. This was a real treatment called the ‘rest cure’, which denied women access to any mental stimulation for days at a time, and Gilman herself underwent this treatment. In fact, that is what inspired her to write this story, because during that time she felt herself losing her grip on her sanity, and she wrote this story to (unsuccessfully) convince her doctor that the rest cure should be stopped. In ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ the narrator becomes obsessed with the pattern of the wallpaper in her room and loses her mind. The story is fantastically written and the final image is under-the-skin creepy.
The next story in this collection, ‘The Rocking Chair’, is another horror story – this one is more of a classic ghost story, and it is very well done but isn’t quite as marvellous as ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’. The final story, ‘Old Water’, coming as it does after the previous two, sets the reader up for another spine-tingler, with a suspiciously lascivious male character pursuing the affections of a lighthearted, nymph-like girl, but the ending is so delightfully unexpected that I laughed out loud. Bravo, Gilman!
“There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.” – ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’
Have you read either of these books or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!