By Fay Weldon
Head of Zeus, £16.99
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This selection of short stories and a new novella by Fay Weldon, covering from 1976 to today, could not be more aptly titled. Few writers better appreciate the trouble that love creates, and the havoc it wreaks, both good and bad. Few, too, have more relentlessly skewered the male of the species, Weldon seeming to view them as if she were a fishmonger, filleting knife in hand. Nor can one blame her. The characters she creates are often repellently selfish and cruel. Though there is a comedic element to much of her fiction, it is underscored by acute observations of how much is expected of women, and how much they expect of themselves.
In her introduction, Weldon outlines the four ages of woman as found in this compendium: "In the seventies women still endured the domestic tyranny of men, in the eighties we found our self-esteem, in the nineties we lifted our heads and looked about, and in the noughties - well, we went out to work. We had to."
That she had to wade through 100 of her stories to make this volume suggests that she has always worked, and hard. Indeed, it is Weldon's immersion in the real world, and her fascination with changes in fashion, trend and mood, that gives these stories their spirit. She is like a weather vane, forever shifting. Thus in the 1970s we have a wife and mother, in Weekend, run ragged by the demands of keeping a country cottage for her husband and children and guests to enjoy at the end of the working week. Just reading it is exhausting, as Weldon describes the food and preparation required for every meal, to suit her picky husband. Not that he is a dinosaur. "If Martha chose to go out to work - as was her perfect right, Martin allowed, even though it wasn't the best thing for the children, but that must be Martha's moral responsibility - Martha must surely pay her domestic stand-in." As well as a housecleaner, she also stumps up for holidays, petrol and electricity. By the turn of the century, however, Weldon's domestic martyrs have disappeared. Now there are women like Ishtar, a thoroughly objectionable loner, who finds herself in prison charged with murder. As she describes the ghastly Christmas day that led to her host's death, not a few readers will forgive her if she did, as is alleged, kill her.
What is remarkable about Mischief is the evenness of voice. Men and women's relationships may have been transformed during the author's lifetime, but her touch on the keyboard has remained steady and sure. Fast, too, one suspects, given the typos and misspellings her publisher has failed to correct.
Although Weldon's early tales are more sombre than her later work, the first paragraph of the opening story, Angel, All Innocence, remains in some ways the leitmotif of everything she has since written. "There is a certain kind of unhappiness, experienced by a certain kind of woman married to a certain kind of man, which is timeless..."
This melancholy portrait of a marriage includes the ghost of a battered wife. The intervention of the supernatural was to become a refrain in Weldon's world, and forms the basis for the novella, The Ted Dreams, with which the collection ends. A fast-paced piece of whimsy, it is not to be taken seriously, and yet it is not entirely to be dismissed either.
It is breathlessly narrated by Phyllis, affectionately called the White Witch by her husband Ted, who dies in his sleep on the first page, but remains a constant presence throughout. Swiftly remarried to a younger man, who works in the pharmaceutical business, Phyllis pops pills to keep her hormonal seesawing under control. She has always done this, but now her dosage is higher, her temper more docile and her dreams of her dead husband disturbingly realistic. When Ted appears to be able to bridge the gap between the afterlife and reality, his widow starts to question what she is taking, and why. The plot is daft, repetitive, and frivolous, but it nevertheless contains some observations many will recognise: " 'Love', I realised, had been the staple of my existence. I had defined myself as a woman who loved men."
For most women love and lust are synonyms for life. And that, as almost each of these stories shows, is where the mischief comes in.