“Short stories are like pots on a potter’s wheel”, said Alison MacLeod in an interview for Matter Magazine. “They seem slippery and mysterious when I write them: I don’t know how they’re going to take shape (or if they will) but I trust my instincts and I trust the story to arrive at the shape it needs to be.”
She also said that she is “intrigued by the dovetailing of fact and fiction.” This is very evident in all the stories in All the Beloved Ghosts where fact and fiction are woven together, often with iconic figures at the center of an imaginative vision. A sequence of photographs taken on Princess Diana’s last day form the basis of ‘Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames’. And ‘Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld’ draws imaginatively on MacLeod’s visit to Sylvia Plath’s grave, on her reading and re-reading of Plath’s poems and letters, and on biographies which have been written about her.
Similarly, in the story which has given this book its title, Alison MacLeod imaginatively becomes, for a brief time, Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. MacLeod knows about Garnett’s art, has read her biography and has twice heard her speak about growing up at Charleston Farmhouse in Essex, where Vita Sackville-West once gave her a puppy and her aunt, Virginia Woolf, was a frequent visitor. Angelica Garnett also read and approved her story.
In ‘The Heart of Denis Noble,’ too, this eminent biologist, who is renowned for his work in mapping the functioning of the heart, read and approved MacLeod’s imagined, very personal, version of his thoughts and experiences whilst undergoing his own heart transplant.
Not all the stories in the book are linked to well-known figures. Some are closer to MacLeod’s own life. The opening story, ‘The Thaw,’ brings to life a young woman living in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the early 1900s. The story is dedicated to Marjorie Genevieve, and wise words prefaced some paragraphs: “Wisdom after the event is cheap indeed…” and “the penalties of past mistakes cannot be remitted, but at least the lessons so solemnly and dearly learned should be taken to heart.” We learn that two of Marjorie’s six sisters have died of TB and her only brother died accidentally of hypothermia when friends left him on the front porch of his home after bringing him home concussed from a drunken nighttime brawl.
Marjorie, however, who is a thoroughly modern young working woman, is full of life. She has saved for two years to buy the expensive, fashionable beaver fur coat which she proudly wears to attend the Saturday night dance in North Sydney, just across the Harbour. “Wrapped in her new coat, she enjoys every moment” of the 16-mile journey to get there through the December snow and ice. Only after the last dramatic moments of the story do we learn of Marjorie’s link with the author.
A very different story ventriloquises the thoughts and feelings of a young black man whose girlfriend may, or may not, have precipitated the violence in the 2011 Tottenham riots in London, when armed police tried to control the hundreds of people who were looting and setting fire to local businesses. Alison MacLeod captures the unreality and the drama of the scene vividly: “It was like some kind of video game;” “they were already chanting loud: ‘Whose streets? Our streets!'” “I saw old and young African and Caribbean, White and Asian working together to push up steel shutters;” “I saw kids as young as ten. I saw one take a golf club to the 7 Mobile window. I saw an old geezer with boxed of trainers stacked high on his arms”.
There is humor, too. ‘In Praise of Radical Fish’ begins, “Brothers, I tell you solemnly: it is not so easy to become radicalised in a seaside resort. There are distractions.” So says the young man who has decided to become a radical Muslim after a quarrel with his father. “We must think of Brighton as the Endurance Course of the Soul” he tells his radical friends when they chastise him for not being serious enough about Holy War. But it is clown fish in the Brighton aquarium which finally tip the balance, when he, and they, find that they can not concentrate on rejecting joy and waiting for The Call.
In ‘How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest,’ a woman activist takes us step-by-step through the process as she enacts it. It is only as the story progresses that we recognize which high-profile political figure she is arresting and what she deems to be his crimes.
My favourite story is ‘We Are All Methodists,’ in which a young female university lecturer forms an unexpected bond with a war-veteran plumber who is renovating the central heating in the converted Methodist chapel in which she lives. MacLeod deftly captures these two very different lives and the way that casual conversation between strangers can create empathy based on common humanity.
Alison MacLeod is an excellent storyteller, able to create the thoughts and the conversations of her very different characters in a natural and believable way. Her tales are beautifully written and each is as individual as any hand-crafted pot. I look forward to reading more of her work.
Our friends over at the Midwest Book Review are happy to share their latest book reviews with BookTrib! This was a review of novelist and short story writer Alison MacLeod’s newest release, All the Beloved Ghosts (Bloomsbury, April 18, 2017), by reviewer Ann Skea.