REVIEW by Suzannah V Evans

NWR Issue r19

Red Roses for a Blue Lady

by Christine Harrison

The stories in Christine Harrison’s Red Roses for a Blue Lady take place in the ordinary world, but they are underlaid with magic, and often violence. Many feature strained marital, or ex-marital, relationships, and Harrison is successful in suggesting the ways in which turbulent emotion can lie behind the most innocuous seeming of social interactions.

‘Moths Don’t Have Nests’ is the opening story, and one that begins and ends, satisfyingly, with the image of a moth. In it, a couple find a coat hidden in a wardrobe in their new house. The man encourages the woman to try it on, and she does, savouring its ‘erotic weight’ and noting that the coat transforms her into a ‘different woman’. She wears it to visit a friend in hospital, and then to a concert, although she remains troubled by the idea that the heavy coat represents ‘the weight of the past’. When she picks up a lone girl who she finds by the roadside, she struggles to articulate her feelings about the coat. ‘How could I explain my ambivalent relationship with a coat?’, she asks herself. Later, she gives it to the girl, who looks ‘bloody marvellous’ in it, and rejoices in the idea that the moths will eventually ‘get at it’. The story, then, is a celebration of impermanence, a nudge for readers to discard the ‘queer bitterness of the past’.

The ‘bitterness of the past’ surfaces again in ‘Coquettes au Café’. Just as the woman’s relationship with her coat is not the only ambivalent one in ‘Moths Don’t Have Nests’, so that between the formerly married couple in the following story is characterised by both tension and longing. The piece recounts their accidental reunion after six years of separation, and the fragility of their relationship is intimated by the woman’s light touch to halt the man as he walks past: ‘She felt that, if she let him pass by, she would never see him again.’ Their meeting is uneasy, and both are unsure how much to invest in it, wondering ‘whether to go or linger’. Eventually, they buy cakes from a pâtisserie and return to the woman’s house to eat them. Their discomfort – they do not initially make eye contact – is overlaid by societal niceties, so that their talk revolves around conversational commonplaces and preparations for tea. ‘I suppose a cup of tea would be nice,’ the man says. The scene would be less interesting were it not for the strange undercurrents of fear and magic that pulse through it. The man feels held to his chair as if by ‘fairy threads’; strange and involuntary lyrics play in the woman’s head. The streak of rebellion that the editor Janet Thomas draws our attention to in the Foreward is evident in the woman’s decision to discard her own cake at the end of the story, and to relish her independent life instead. A rekindled relationship with her former partner ‘would only upset’ the habits she has built since his departure, when he left her for another woman.

‘Come, My Darling’ is another story pivoting on the interactions between a wife, husband, and mistress, revealing the betrayed wife to have the upper hand. The beginning sees her talking with her husband, aware of his desire to meet with his mistress later. She meditates on dark urges:

Beside the fireplace was a heavy poker. If she moved quickly, determinedly – nimbly barefoot as she was – and using all her strength in the blow, she could kill him. Or very nearly, and one more blow to finish him off.
‘I think tea would be nice’, she said. ‘I’ll go and organise it.’

Once again, violence is shown trembling beneath the surface of the mundane. The husband, oblivious to his wife’s thoughts, invites her to meet his mistress that evening. She is ‘seized with a sudden, painfully overwhelming, curiosity; an almost orgasmic feeling,’ and agrees. Their meeting is awkward, although it has surprising consequences for the two women, who become allies. The story ends with joyous (and ultimately harmless) violence.

‘Red Roses for a Blue Lady’ also celebrates female friendship while commenting on the pleasures and pains of matrimony. The story recounts the relationship between Mr and Mrs Stanley, who own the ‘local flea-pit cinema’. Mr Stanley is obsessed with Greta Garbo, and they both feel that the numerous stars in the films they watch are adequate stand-ins for friends and human interaction. They watch so many that it even alters their appearance, and Mrs Stanley’s face takes on a ‘dreamy expression. It was as if her mind was an empty receiver of impressions.’ Their own relationship is built on intense familiarity: ‘They knew each other’s ways as if they were two blind moles in a tunnel – the knowledge was gained by means of different senses from sight or even sound.’ It is not until she falls ill that Mrs Stanley realises how insular her life has been, and she rejoices in the company of the other women in her hospital ward:

These women, who had experienced childbirth, menstrual troubles and now the removal or repair of their wombs, had a camaraderie – not quite as soldiers who had suffered together, not quite as prisoners who had relinquished their freedom, but as the ones it was all done to….

Perhaps to counter this passivity, as well as that required in the activity of watching films, Mrs Stanley decides to take action against her husband’s passion for Greta Garbo. Her longing for violence, which echoes that of other women across the collection, may symbolise frustration at women’s traditional roles – in life as in fairy tales.

Enjoyable as the stories are, Harrison’s language can be patchy. The description of the coat’s lining in ‘Moths Don’t Have Nests’ is overloaded with adjectives, so that it is not only ‘pale’, or ‘heavy’, or ‘satin’, but all three at once. Other descriptions are slightly vague, as in ‘Neptune’s Palace’, where a girl is pictured ‘wearing a nice hat with red flowers of some sort.’ Sometimes, there is too much repetition, and in ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’, the word ‘light’ is repeated in a way that could be intended to be hypnotic, but which doesn’t quite come off: ‘Light moves through the trees as light does on the waves’; ‘The light shines… like light pouring into a cathedral’. These lines are balanced, however, with descriptions that are both delightful and sensual, so that in ‘Hyacinth’, the ‘smell of toast was like a high note.’

What Christine Harrison does best is infuse her portrayal of ordinary situations with deep feelings of unease, longing, violence, and unexpected desire, and the result is unsettling and memorable. Her characters, and their unspoken urges, linger in the memory long after reading.

Suzannah V Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. She was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. Her writing has appeared in the TLS, Eborakon, the London Magazine, the ScoresTime PresentTears in the Fence, and elsewhere.

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