Nicholas Lezard

Tales of the unexpected: The Complete Short Stories, by Patrick O’Brian, reviewed

Instead of swashbuckling, we get the Parisian art world, trout-fishing, unhappy couples and surrogate parenting – though the 20 stories for children are full of adventure

Patrick O’Brian.

The publishers of this handsome volume hint at high adventure – and period adventure at that. In the blot left by an antique quill pen swirls a breaking wave. Ah, the high seas! And here we are again with Aubrey and Maturin picking weevils out of ship’s biscuits and foiling Napoleon’s naval plans.

So I had better warn readers that this isn’t really representative. The first story in the collection, ‘The Return’, is about a man returning to childhood haunts and fishing for trout. The second, ‘The Last Pool’, is different in that this time the fish are salmon (although the protagonist starts out looking for trout). Internal evidence suggests that this is not set in the time of the Napoleonic wars, although, as against the contemplative melancholy of the first story, ‘The Last Pool’ is probably as exciting a tale about angling as you are going to get.

But there are other stories which you would not have guessed were written by someone who liked his swashbucklers. There are unhappy couples (‘Samphire’); highly awkward issues surrounding surrogate parenthood (‘The Handmaiden’); collapsing marriages (‘The Stag at Bay’); the Parisian art world (‘A Journey to Cannes’), and life in an unnamed dictatorship (‘The Overcoat’). And although there is more about fishing, and the high seas in 1800, the 43 adult tales published here are more diverse in subject matter than you might ever have imagined. If they have anything in common it is their competence – which sounds condescending, but isn’t meant to be. (I merely want to suggest: don’t expect anything in the manner of formal innovation or literary avant-gardisme.) The natural world often features, and is closely observed; so are the austerities of 1950s Britain, and the pinched reticence of the people who lived in it.

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