Listening In is a collection of 24 short stories from comedian and writer Jenny Éclair. Her last literary outing was the well-received novel Moving, reviewed on Shiny New Books here. Running at around 10 pages per story it is perfect bed time reading. Black and white illustrations by the author are dotted throughout the collection which add a personal touch.
Each story is written from the first person, giving them an intimate feeling, plunging the reader straight into the mind of the protagonist. They really do feel as though you are ‘listening in’. The secret thoughts, conversations, hopes and disappointments that would normally remain lock up inside are explored.
Although each story is unique and stand-alone the theme of revenge does run across multiple stories. Those small moments of success and comeuppance, feature throughout. As in the case of the protagonist of Margot’s Cardigans or A Slight Alteration these moments have taken a long time to emerge and have only really occurred by accident. Those serendipitous moments in life where a long-suffering wife or loving mother has the chance to rebalance their surroundings. Many of the stories are deeply funny. None more so than those in which good intentions turn in on themselves and women who seem to be one thing turn around and surprise their families.
Combining both revenge and a comedic turn of events is Christine Paints. Here a couple have moved out to the countryside so that the husband can pursue his writing career in peace. At the same time, his wife has been finding ways of integrating into the local community, of making new friends. One way she has done this is through a local art class. This one morning a week event which will go on to change her life in ways she could never have predicted. The ending had me punching the air with joy as Christine was able to do what everyone who has ever been betrayed or mistreated has dreamt of.
“It’s never easy, the first day, it it? First day anywhere really, school, new job, holiday?”. In Fantastic News, a middle-aged couple go on holiday, leaving their adult children behind: 23 year old University student Scott, and the slightly more troublesome twenty nine year old ‘spoken word’ poet Tamsin. When Tamsin sends her mother a mysterious text, imaginations start to run and hopes climb. The relationship between the unnamed woman and her husband John is incredibly realistic and entertainingly told. One doesn’t have to have had the same experiences to be able to recognise the patterns they have fallen into. The ending, which I shall be careful not to spoil, was quietly beautiful.
Anthea’s Round Robin is laugh out loud funny from beginning to end. It starts out as one would expect but quickly descends into a catalogue of a failing marriage. It seems that Anthea has only ever dreamed of one thing: “I had plans drawn up for a new kitchen extension, because let’s face it, what woman in her right mind doesn’t dream of a laundry room-cum-larder-stroke-boot room and pickling kitchen?”. She sounds middle class and middle aged. A woman who has lived for her children for so long that she has largely ceased to live herself. Her husband is another matter altogether. Their picture-perfect life falls away with each sentence and the reader is given an hilarious insight into Anthea’s life so far.
In Carol Goes Swimming a woman has been pushed into going swimming by her nurse. It is time to focus on her health and weight (although this is something that the nurse seems to believe applies only to patients and not to medical professionals). The smell of chlorine never changes and it pricks her memory into action. She is taken back to school swimming lessons, teaching her children and to meeting her best friend Sandra. Now Carol has a new life to navigate but an encounter with the past will remind her that she is not alone. This story is a testament to the importance, romance and power of lifelong friendships.
The collection started life as a BBC Radio 4 series called Little Lifetimes, which are still available to listen to online. This very popular miniseries demonstrated Éclair’s way with words and ability to craft intriguing first person narratives about seemingly ordinary women with hidden depths. This wonderful volume is very high on my list of favourite short story collections and is not to be missed.
Jenny Éclair. Listening In (Little Brown Book Group, 2017) 9780751567731, 246pp., Hardback. .