Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Good Short Fiction: At Hiruharama (Penelope Fitzgerald)

Title: At Hiruharama
Author: Penelope Fitzgerald
Where I read it: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (edited by A.S. Byatt)

In explaining how there came to be a lawyer in the Tanner family - a successful lawyer who helped the family emigrate out of New Zealand - the story shifts to a previous generation. A young man comes from England to New Zealand with the expectation of getting a useful apprenticeship, but winds up working as a servant; a young woman comes to New Zealand expecting to be a governess, but also winds up working as a servant. They meet, he courts her, they marry and settle in a remote spot in the countryside, Hiruharama, where the nearest neighbor is an eccentric man who comes over for dinner semiannually. When the young woman becomes pregnant, her husband tries to figure out how to deal with the fact that they will be miles away from any medical help when she goes into labor.

Some reasons to read it

  • The story's matter-of-fact tone. I didn't really know where the story was going, and what it would lead to aside from the major event of childbirth. I kept paying attention to the details, delighting in the amount of thought put into the characters' home, their lives, the husband's plans for the childbirth... and at one point I was so startled by what had happened that I skipped back a few paragraphs and did some re-reading.

  • There are surprises, little and big, along the way. They sneak up on you. And the words "Throw Nothing Away" take on significant meaning. A person can prepare for eventualities, but there are developments that can't be anticipated and details that in the stress of the moment may be overlooked, with potentially disastrous consequences.

  • Some of the smaller surprises include the use of racing-pigeons to notify a doctor in the nearest town that the labor is underway. I loved that detail. There's also the eccentric neighbor, Brinkman:
    Like most people who live on their own Brinkman continued with the course of his thoughts, which were more real to him than the outside world's commotion. Walking straight into the front room he stopped in front of the piece of mirror-glass tacked over the sink and looked fixedly into it. 'I'll tell you something, Tanner, I thought I caught sight of my first gray hairs this morning.'

    The timing of Brinkman's appearance is hilarious, as is his general obliviousness and the calm polite way in which he's received.

  • I like the way Fitzgerald portrays the relationship between the husband and wife. There aren't any grand declarations of emotion, but the quiet details convey much about caring and love.

  • The story is thoughtful, playful, and sneaky. It stuck with me after I read it, and from time to time I still turn it over in my mind.


Other recommended stories from this collection include these three and Nuns at Luncheon (by Aldous Huxley).


Crafty Green Poet said...

Sounds like a good story, I've enjoyed reading some of Penelope Fitzgerald's novels too

HKatz said...

I think after reading this story I'd like to have a look at her novels.

naida said...

This sounds like a nice story. I do like surprises that kind of sneak up on me as I'm reading.