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October 13, 2009

The English Stories by Cynthia Flood

This weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of being utterly captivated by Cynthia Flood’s collection The English Stories. The stories are linked by the experiences of eleven-year-old Amanda Ellis who travels to Oxford, England in 1951 with her parents. Her academic father is on sabbatical, researching for a book about Shelley and Keats, and the family spends their English year (which stretches into two) at The Green House guesthouse. When her father’s research takes him further afield, Amanda indulges in every colonial girl’s deepest fantasy by becoming a boarder at her school, St. Mildred’s.

The story title “The Margins are the Frame” gives a good impression of Amanda’s point of view. Amanda– by her age, culture, language and nationality– is alienated from everyone around her. And from the margins, her perspective of England, of home and away, of her parents and their relationship, of her schoolmates and teachers is surprising, misinformed, illuminating, tragic and true. And although Amanda is the anchor of the entire collection, the stories also come from additional perspectives– from other guests at The Green House, from teachers at St. Mildred’s, all of these characters on margins of their own.

This was an England not long out of war, in the throes of an age of austerity, coming to terms (or not yet) with fundamental changes in values and beliefs, and grappling with centuries of a empirical past that was quickly becoming irrelevant. And though Flood’s protagonist is young, her stories’ themes are not, which becomes the point– Amanda struggling with the gap between the world as it is and her limited understanding. Understanding which is little achieved here, for Amanda is only eleven after all, and then just twelve, and thirteen. Far too young yet for “coming of age” and Flood doesn’t do such neat resolutions anyway.

What she does do is a marvelous sentence: “At lunch on the rainy February day the King died, the sweet was custard and stewed damsons” opens “Early in the Morning”, or “The Spring term in which Kay died and Constance disappeared from St. Mildred’s, and I broke my glasses featured a school wide obsession with mealtime talk of sex” begins “Magnificat“. These sentences both convey the way in Flood encapsulates the world wide and near, the great and small, inside her literary universe. And while I want to write about my favourite stories and what each one was “about”, but I’m not sure I can contain all that in the space I have here.

But I will try: “Religious Knowledge” from the perspective of Miss Flower, teacher of religion, who has not yet mastered her own life and then becomes responsible for another when she learns about one of her pupil’s disturbing homelife; “Miss Pringle’s Hour”, the headmistress’s diary hiding a tragic love story inside it; “The Promised Land” shows the Ellis’ at the end of their sojourn and provides them with a new perspective on Canada (amongst other things); “The Margins are the Frame” in which Amanda takes up shoplifting, is ostracized at school, and learns that the maid at The Greenhouse is an unmarried mother.

But really, these descriptions don’t do these stories justice. With mere words (though there is nothing mere about her words), Flood has recreated a time and a place and an atmosphere so steeped, I could trace my finger along the patterns in the wallpaper (and she doesn’t even mention the wallpaper). These stories are challenging, tricky, ripe with allusionary gateways to the wider world of literature. And so rewarding, for the richness of character, the intricate detail, and careful plotting that holds just enough back, keeping us alert and anticipating what’s around every next turn.

BONUS: Read “Religious Knowledge” at the Biblioasis Blog.

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