978-0-00-710030-9 / 9780007100309

The Means of Escape





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About the book:

Penelope Fitzgerald said: "I do leave a lot out and trust the reader really to be able to understand it. My books are about twice the length when they're first finished, but I cut all of it out. It's just an insult to explain everything."

There are just eight stories in Penelope Fitzgerald's last book "The means Of Escape" but they are as invigorating and surprising as the novels. There is "The Axe", a tale of office life, redundancy and "a visitant which should not be walking but buried in the earth". The sense of the uncanny is also present in "Desideratus", where a young 17th-century boy loses a keepsake and then finds it in the hand of a cold-handed boy in the dark upper floors of a house called Watching. Fitzgerald's characters are also painfully, peculiarly real. Their foibles and eccentricities are described with a crisp truthfulness. The title story tells of a woman's encounter with a masked convict in a church. Alice smuggles him food, and the convict promises: "wait and trust, give me time, and I will send for you". He stows away, ironically, on a ship named Constancy, with Alice's housekeeper Mrs. Watson whose "motives for doing what she did--which taking into her account her intense affection for Alice, must have been complex enough--were never set down, and can only be guessed at".

Fitzgerald's novels are short; carefully researched details are used sparingly to create atmosphere and a historical context in her later fiction, whilst her earlier work drew on situations from her own life. But all her work has a fierce moral perspective, which isn't always easy to accept. Reading her fiction is like skating across a cool, elegant surface, and suddenly being plunged into icy, mysterious depths. Her prose style may be cunningly simple, but her meaning is sometimes very enigmatic. --Eithne Farry

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