I expect most people are aware that there’s been a royal wedding taking place today. There were fairy tale carriages and splendid guards on horseback and kings and queens and cheering crowds and the palely gorgeous Westminster Abbey, an ‘intimate’ venue for 2,000 guests. If we still have our monarchy in the UK, it’s probably because we have all these excellent props and it would be a shame to see them go to waste. Plus, all our broadcasters get to use the word ‘pageantry’ a lot, and it’s a very good word. My favourite moment in the whole thing was a camera shot of the world’s religious representatives, all sitting side by side against a wall. In my imagination I couldn’t help but see a banner unfurl above them, on which was written ‘Special Edition. Collector’s Set’. Weddings make me uneasy – they are such a performance of optimistic fantasies; all that pomp and splendour around promises that can never be perfectly kept in complex, difficult reality. On the one hand, we need that level of hope to get us through life, but on the other, no one tells you quite how much tolerance and flexibility you need to get though marriage. The Bishop of London gave a really rather good address, in which he said marriage was an important step in becoming the selves god wanted us to be, and that it was a chance for us to overcome our basic human selfishness. I thought that was a very astute way of putting it; a successful marriage really does need each partner to find proper, loving altruism towards the other, and the difficulty of that spiritual task should not be underestimated.
It may seem a tad out of keeping with the spirit of the day to be reviewing a collection of short stories by the American writer, Michelle Latiolais, entitled Widow. But it is a) a truly excellent collection of short stories, the best I have read in a long time and b) it is excellent precisely because it has so much to say of interest about long-term partnerships. Out of 17 stories, five concern what must, I think, have been a real-life experience of the author of being unexpectedly widowed after 18 years of a happy marriage. We are not told until the final pages how the husband died (the circumstances are shocking), instead we are right up close to the absurd process that is the continuation of life within full-blown grief. Although that sounds ghastly and miserable – and it is clearly no fun at all – these are not depressing stories. There is an emotional vitality to them, a clarity of insight, a sense for the ridiculous and the poignant that make them simply truthful and engaging.
They are surrounded by what looks at first glance to be stories covering a wide variety of situations and concerns. The story about a woman’s trip to a male lap-dancing club that I liked so much is here; there’s a story about the wife of an academic, saying goodbye to his students who’ve been round for a social evening and realising her husband might be having an affair with one of them; the story of a young woman being chatted up by her writing class teacher in a way that she really doesn’t appreciate; the story of a wife deeply in love with her husband who is persuaded by him (in the interests of his academic research) to go to Africa and eat the same diet as chimpanzees for a month; the story of a woman doing the ironing and reflecting on the differences between cotton and linen and synthetic fibres, how the former protect the skin and the latter – especially in the case of fires – endanger it. They seem at first glance disparate. And yet as I read, so I began to feel there was an underlying interest in our profound sensitivities. We are sensitive in so many ways, more than we ever give credit for – sensitive to what we have against our skin, sensitive to people who do not think the way we do, sensitive to the diet we grow accustomed to, sensitive to tiny clues and gestures in the body language of other people. Our being in the world takes place in a myriad of interactions between skins, minds, fantasies, and more often than not, those interactions rub us up the wrong way and make us uncomfortable.
So this is where the long-term partnership fits in because here, when it works, we find ourselves cradled and soothed. Even the partnerships that don’t work have the blessing of familiarity about them, enough harmony and coordination to give us a sense of comfort and safety. When we lose a partner, we lose the body that fits against ours, the mind that choreographs with our own, the routines and the habits that smooth the rough edges off of life, the place where we can be at peace and at rest. Our partners are our literal human shields, and the effect when they are removed is akin to brutal exposure to the elements once again. The narrator’s grief in her widowhood is portrayed in a series of stories that show her sense of vulnerability and isolation, and the insufficient attempts she makes to bolster herself in the world. But these are not melancholy stories, as I said; they are courageous and honest. The cover, which I think is particularly beautiful, is taken from a fifteenth century tarot card depicting the Queen of Swords, representative of widowhood, separation and mourning, but also the woman who is wise through suffering. These are indeed wise, beautiful and evocative stories that reveal the intricacy of our inner lives with delicacy and restraint.