SHORT STORY REVIEW: ‘AN INHERITANCE’ BY DIANE SIMMONS

Review by Becky Tipper

Publisher: V. Press (2020)
Pages: 43
ISBN: 978-1-916109650
RRP: £6.50

 

An Inheritance is a novella-in-flash which follows the changing fortunes of a family over four generations and seventy years.

It opens in the 1930s, with newly-weds Thomas and Margaret, their lives overshadowed by Thomas’s domineering father. Thomas and Margaret’s family expands when Catherine, Susan and Freddie arrive, and we follow the three children as they grow up and step into their own lives, culminating with the final story featuring Susan’s own university-age daughters in 2002. Throughout, there are family conflicts and secrets, simmering resentments and moments of reconciliation, and (as the title suggests) inheritances of many kinds – large amounts of money, little bits of jewellery, and more intangible things such as stories, love and connections that are passed on between generations. It packs a remarkable amount into a mere 43 pages!

The 18 flash fictions take the perspectives of various characters across the years. Although together they tell the overarching story of the novella, each of these small stories are satisfying in their own right. One of my favourites was ‘A Foreign Land’, set in 1975, in which a grown-up Susan and Catherine make a pilgrimage to the site of the D-Day landings, where they grapple with both the past and the unfamiliar food:

[Susan] … nibbles around the edges of a baguette, tries to avoid the Camembert. The food’s so alien. The meal they had last night tasted awful. Olive oil, Catherine said. Susan thought people used that to unblock ears. She wonders how the British, used to meat and two veg, coped all those years ago, then feels stupid. Most of those men would have had little chance to try local food …

It’s a lovely story which encapsulates what is so good about Simmons’ writing. She has a wonderful ability to capture tiny details that reflect the changing sensibilities of the 20thcentury (such as the evolution of olive oil as a cooking ingredient – a detail I particularly appreciated since my own parents were similarly horrified that olive oil might be used for anything other than cleaning ears!) But these light-hearted observations go hand-in-hand with an honest, often heart-rending attention to people’s ordinary griefs; ultimately, ‘A Foreign Land’ is a sensitive exploration of how people struggled to make sense of the devastation wrought by the Second World War for many years afterwards. It was one of several stories which brought tears to my eyes at the end.

In all these flashes, there are astute observations about relationships, and Simmons’ characters are utterly believable – familiar, engaging, stubborn, flawed and messy. With a light touch, she very effectively conjures particular moments in time through turns of phrase, references to major historical events, or specific food (in fact, there’s a lot of food in these pages, which perhaps, as much as anything, is a marker of cultural change in 20thcentury Britain – along with olive oil, there are institutional slimy, fried eggs; rationed sweets; fish and parsley sauce; and chocolate buttons). It’s a novella firmly rooted in history, and as it unfolds, we also see the real-life impacts of societal change, from the opportunities created by the Open University, to advances in medical care that have transformed the treatment of many illnesses including arthritis and tuberculosis.

I was also struck by the stories involving Freddie, whom we initially encounter as a boy in the 1950s. In the one-page story ‘A Long Way Away’, a young Freddie writes home from a sanatorium where he has been sent to recover from TB. His small traumas are vivid: the strangeness of being in an institution far from home, and later the strangeness of returning to normal life again. Yet, as the novella skips briskly ahead, Freddie’s childhood is soon long gone. And in the 1973 story ‘Equal Shares’, we meet a quite different, adult Fred, and it’s hard to believe this man was ever the vulnerable child who wrote home just a few pages earlier. There’s something incredibly poignant about this kind of leap, which shuttles us rapidly from one moment to the next, eclipsing the years between. But it’s true that this is how time can seem to pass, and true too that people known as children can sometimes be almost unrecognisable as adults.

These leaps in time are central to An Inheritance. Throughout, there is much that we don’t see. For instance, although the novella spans the thirties and forties, there are no stories that actually take place during the war. But the war is present, as are other off-stage events, in the aftermath, and effects felt years later. I found this a very haunting and effective form of story-telling: although the characters and their lives could easily fill a full-length novel, seeing them only in brief moments means the reader is left to fill in the gaps, and the characters seem to linger more powerfully in the imagination.

Flash fiction seems to invite metaphors, and I couldn’t help but think of them as I read. Reading An Inheritance is a little like wandering through a vast, dark house and lighting a match now and then to briefly illuminate a room. Or, perhaps, I thought, like watching a stone skimming the sea, touching down every now and then as it travels a long distance. In any case, although it is brief and almost deceptively simple, An Inheritance is also artful and profound. It’s easy to read – Simmons’ writing is unfussy, tender and engaging – but there’s a great deal going on under the surface. It’s a beautiful little book which has much to say about time and change and families, and about the treasures to be found in ordinary life.

***

Becky Tipper’s short stories have been published in The Honest Ulsterman, Prole, The Lampeter Review, For Books’ Sake, and elsewhere. She is a previous winner of the Bridport Prize for flash fiction, and a recipient of a Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon short story Award.