title: Never Breathe a Word: The Collected Stories of Caroline Blackwood [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Caroline Blackwood
genre: short stories/essays
source: my personal library
“‘Have you ever seen the way that an elm dies, Theresa? An elm doesn’t die like other trees, you know. An elm dies from the inside. An elm dies in secret. You should always remember to be careful when you walk underneath elms, for they can be dangerous. Elms are the only trees which give no warning signs of their own decay. They can just come toppling down with a fearful crash while all their branches still look glorious and intact and all their leaves are still in bud. Once they are on the ground it can be quite frightening to see what has happened inside their trunks. Once they are dead you can see how the rot has eaten into them so hideously that they are completely hollow. People who allow themselves to become trivial and humdrum are like blighted elms. Eventually they are destroyed by being so filled with their own hollowness…’ The more she would speak about dying elms, the more I would start to feel like one.” (How You Love Our Lady, page 30).
Before I talk about the book, I want to talk about the back cover copy and a general issue I find with the marketing of notable women writers: the contextualization of their accomplishments in relation to their famous husband(s)/lover(s)/sibling(s). This drives me NUTS. From the back cover:
“Though perhaps better known for her tumultuous marriages to the painter Lucien Freud and the poet Robert Lowell…”
This is her book. A collection of her short stories and essays. And the FIRST SENTENCE on the back cover insinuates that, even though Blackwood was an accomplished writer, the most IMPORTANT thing about her is who she was not-necessarily happily married to. The copy that goes on the back of a book is a very strategic marketing decision. The marketing team is banking on the fact that even if you’ve only vaguely heard of Blackwood, you’ve absolutely heard of Freud and Lowell, and their accomplishments will be the thing that compels you to pick up the book. That’s beyond insulting. She’s been nominated for the Booker Prize. She was the daughter of brewery heiress Maureen Guinness. Yet that’s a biographical footnote. I’m just really sick of accomplished women being defined by society by the men in their life. #patriarchy
Anyway, onto the collection itself. It’s solid. The first 3/4 of the book are short stories, while the last 1/4 is comprised on non-fiction, mostly biographical essays. But the through-line that links all the pieces all the pieces together are the disturbed characters at their core.
“The eyes of the dying can become cold as the lens of any camera. They take mechanical pictures of those who surround them. They focus on their doctors and their nurses. They shift their glassy stare to the grim and rigid faces of their distressed friends and relatives as if they have some need to photograph only their uselessness–to capture some last image of their inadequacy which they can blame, retain, and carry to eternity.” (The Eyes of Lenora, page 265)
Blackwood is a master of characterization, and the subjects of her stories are often dark and deeply troubled women. Her characters are morally-stunted by their self-absorption, and their preoccupation with their own needs and wants predominates the narrative. A few of the stories that stood out to me:
Marigold’s Christmas: (fiction) This story broke my heart. A young woman, facing the prospect of spending her first Christmas alone with her daughter, has what I consider to be the most depressing/pathetic Christmas eve/Christmas morning ever. Her choices are so desperate and so blatantly self-interested…this is the stuff that childhood trauma is made of. Poor Marigold and her glitter pinecones.
The Baby Nurse: (fiction) What happens when you take a new-born baby, a woman with a desperately sad case of postpartum depression, an arrogant, self-aggrandizing baby nurse, and a disinterested father with a vendetta? A brilliantly disturbing story.
Who Needs It?: (fiction) The uplifting story of a salon owner who fires her newly hired shampoo “girl” after a customer takes notice of the tattoo that marks her as a concentration camp survivor. Listening to the salon owner’s logic as she explains her decision to her sex-deprived husband is deeply unsettling.
The Answering Machine: (fiction) The sad tale of a woman who, after the death of her husband, makes daily trips to the local pub to drink one beer and leave herself messages on her own answering machine, so that upon her return home, some sound will fill her apartment. The story Blackwood crafts is a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness, examining what we do to fill the voids in our lives.
Never Breathe a Word: (nonfiction) Blackwood relays the beyond creepy childhood story of their family’s groom, a former jockey, who tried to lure her into the woods in the middle of the night with the promise of pills that would make her a better horsewoman.
Piggy: (nonfiction) Blackwood shares the story of Piggy McDougal, the Catholic-hating albino-esque redhead with a thyroid problem (got a clear visual yet) who ruled the halls of Stoneyport Preparatory School during her brief childhood tenure there during the war, giving the reader a much-needed break from the cruelty of adults to focus on the cruelty of children.
If you’re feeling awesome about humanity and want to be knocked down a peg, this is the book for you.
The honesty with which she approaches the work is astounding and worthy of merit in and of itself. Yes, her characters are dark, but the situations she crafts are so mundane or so universal (the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, the first Christmas after a separation) that despite the darkness, you’ll walk away looking at the world in a whole new light.
Rubric rating: 7.5 I want to read Great Granny Webster STAT.
- Read 75 books (4/75)
- Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read: Europe, North America)
- Read titles from 20 countries ( 3/20 countries read: Italy (Sardinia), America, England)
- Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (4/10) Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood