“Notwithstanding,” the new collection of 22 short stories from Louis de Bernières, is utterly charming. And, no, that’s not damning with faint praise.
Charming is a quaint, old-fashioned word, and this is a quaint book (originally released in England in 2009) that captures the quirky characters in an old-fashioned English village, called, of course, Notwithstanding.
But while the stories in this collection are sweet, there’s no treacle here. And the characters, while initially seeming like caricatures, come to life — warts and all. Jack, the last peasant in the village “reeks of six decades of neglected hygiene.” Lonely, priggish Mrs. Griffiths gets roaring drunk after a keen disappointment.
With its simplicity, its laugh-out-loud humor and quotable bits of wisdom, this very English book goes deeper than it first seems.
At the end of a story about a young boy catching a local legend of a fish, we find him feeling torn about the triumph that will come to define his life:
“He was haunted by how beautiful the pike had been when it was first out of the water, and how its beauty had already diminished when it had been out for only an hour. He knew instinctively that beauty should last forever, and that this world would never be perfected until beauty was perpetual.”
A story about a chatty old spiritualist who dotes on her long-silent husband seems cute — if a tad contrived — until we learn that husband Mac was scarred by the horrors of the Great War; that he and Mrs. Mac are “of a generation, more than any other that has ever lived, that has been cauterised by history, and came through it with the conviction that there is no higher aim in life than to live with common decency,” and that Mac is, in fact, dead.
With subtleness rather than sensation, De Bernières creates a close-knit community on the edge of extinction, a community that for all its quirks and dysfunction we wish we had been a part of.
His stories, though thoroughly English, have the capability to sting the hearts of Americans with the ache of longing and the bitterness of nostalgia for a place we never knew.
Connie Nelson is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for lifestyles.
By: Louis de Bernieres.
Publisher: Vintage, 372 pages, $16.