I have mixed feelings about short stories. In some ways they can be perfectly formed like poems and they can be read in a limited time window but lacking the total commitment to a plot it is unlikely that the reader can be involved with the characters as in a novel. In Gabrielle Barnby’s book there are connections woven through most of the stories, giving them a unity of place and essence.
The house with the lilac shutters, which drew me to this book, stands opposite the Café Rose in a small town in the south of France. Most, but not all, of the stories take place there, in the heat of the summer sun. Some are set in a parallel town in England. The protagonist are old and young, visitor and local and all aspects of life are reflected; birth, death, adultery, love, suicide and desire.
There is an element of, measuring lives in coffee spoons, as many moments in time are described in intense detail,
“Today we are sitting together outside Café Rose. On our right there is the river, dark and green, bending the light into convex ripples. I sip my coffee and look onto the square. I want to add another cube of sugar, but I resist and try to savour the unfamiliar bitter-rich flavour.”
Among the many characters are many with secrets, some with regrets or guilt. Memories are dwelt on but only some find new opportunities. My favourite character is Angelique, the carer, who dressed in bright colours brings light into the life of Aubrey and makes tasty dishes from her childhood in Cameroon. One story, Leyla’s Legacy, really troubled me. It is a tragic tale of cruelty and unhappiness and of the subjugation of women continuing into each generation.
These stories are thought provoking, encompassing many themes and emotions in everyday places. Gabrielle Barnby is a very talented writer.