"Small Displacements" by Vanessa Furse Jackson (Livingston Press, 155 pages, $16.95)
All 11 of these stories are set in the author's native England, though she has lived in the United States since 1984. The themes, always expertly matched by the style, range from wifely bitterness to an old pair's delightful, rather fey nostalgia. And the shock ending of "Before the Fall" made me put down the book and stare until I could tug myself out of the action and become a reader again.
A few of the other stories also have dark endings. More often there is a reconciliation, especially between neglected wife and superficially repentant husband.
In "Miss Best and Mr. Marvel," a male nursing home resident tells a female resident about a young romance of his. The girl accepted his marriage proposal, he tells Miss Best, and he "was bold enough to lift her hands to my lips." Then, he says, he reached for his cigarette case and the two of them sat and smoked.
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Miss Best had never smoked. "Cigarettes?" she said. "At a moment like this?" She opened her eyes and looked over at Mr. Marvel.
He caught her glance, guiltily, then rallied. "At that very moment," he cried, "my father came lunging through the door windows like a rogue elephant in must, galloped around the old wooden seat, and stood before Ada and me gobbling like a turkey in his incoherent rage."
"Either an elephant or a turkey. Not both, surely?" said Miss Best.
"Trumpeting and gobbling his displeasure," continued Mr. Marvel, magnificently.
The title story is about a widow whose cancer is recurring and whose displacement is to be from the house she has loved since childhood to a new wing that her son has planned.
In "Grieving for Man," the wife, unlike the alienated ones of some of the stories, devotes herself unreservedly to her dying husband. She makes him healthful meals from the herbs in their garden, and she cleans their house "with a fierce energy to ensure that no dust, no blanket fluff, no mites, no germs, no harm should come near him." The story, like "Before the Fall," has a jolt near the end. This one, though, arises not from a shocking accident but from a touching misapprehension by the woman after her husband dies.
The author tells me in an e-mail that her next collection will include some Texas stories. Good. I want to see if she can make Texans as Texan as her English characters are English. "Small Displacements," with its variety, humor, quiet power, and, most of all, its thorough assumption of its characters' minds and voices, deserves a much wider readership than usually responds to a subtle and artistic work put out by a small university press.