Aficionados of revenge, and even those who only dream of it, will love the exquisite, slow-burn tension that infuses Jane Stevenson’s Good Women. She is on sparkling top form with ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Walking With Angels’ and ‘Garden Guerrillas’, a deliciously vicious triangle of witty novellas linked by the theme of revenge.
Stevenson is clever, sophisticated and irrepressibly playful. A spirited observer of human drives and delusions, she has a full-blooded relish for the stranger territories of the psyche.
She has chosen very different settings for each of these revenge tales, which unfold with the claustrophobic inevitability of psychological thrillers. The narratives are delivered by a trio of moral defectives, the most unpleasant of whom is victim rather than perpetrator. All are experts in one way or another, and are at their most fascinating when expanding on their pet subjects, be it restoring a sixteenth-century Scottish tower house, channelling angels, or creating a horticultural hell.
Funny and sharp, Stevenson’s style is inimitably her own, although her approach carries resonances of Roald Dahl, Margery Allingham, Evelyn Waugh and Patricia Highsmith. The latter’s brilliantly sinister Strangers on a Train is obliquely referenced in ‘Light My Fire’, a tale of lust and folly narrated with gratifyingly bitter 20-20 hindsight by an architect who specialises in up-market restorations. On the train from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, his eyes rove with increasing alertness over the woman seated opposite, taking in ‘the intensely feminine quality of her presence’. He defines her as ‘the kind of woman who made herself into a challenge simply by existing in the same space’, implying that it’s her fault he succumbs to her Praying Mantis charms. The erotic charge that’s coursing between them takes his mind off the negative promise of her small, sharp teeth. It doesn’t take him long to bed then wed ‘Foxy Freda’, the wife from Shell. Divested of his comfortable domestic menage and the contacts it brought his business, he sinks his depleted capital into a crumbling tower house with potential, potential, potential. Here the tone moves into ironic lifestyle pornography. We’re talking deceptively large, property ladder, top of the range look-alike. Corners have to be cut, but he knows all the tricks of the trade. Our incorrigible chauvinist declares Freda congenitally inferior when it comes to the taste-palette, however well she can coat distressed furniture with gesso. In the end it’s hard to tell whether a defective Aga or the trollop – sorry, ‘bitch from hell’ – is his nemesis. Either way, Mr Smug is taken down a peg or two. It’s hard not to cheer.
Revenge is said to be sweet, but that’s not the message of the hilarious central novella, in which a quintessentially ordinary suburban housewife starts seeing angels. Wenda notices the first of them standing by the fridge, but she has breakfast to be getting on with. ‘He had a nice sort of goldy sheen, but it wasn’t a good moment for that sort of caper.’ She and her hapless husband Derek, who calls her ‘pet’, are the sort of people who swear things are always better after a nice cup of tea. But the platitudes and props of routine domesticity are to no avail. Angels continue to appear and disappear at will. They tell Wenda she is ‘a beautiful radiant being of goodness’ and surround her with light. It feels good, and it takes her mind off the fact her meek husband is downloading porn, a discovery that just might have something to do with her sudden oddness. Her doctor suggests she might have Charles Bonnet syndrome, ‘a type of hallucination which affects people who have all their wits about them’. Much to the embarrassment of her family, Wenda plans to set up as an alternative healer, designs her own set of divination cards and Googles angels until New Age hokum trips off her tongue. When Derek suspects she’s having an affair, she responds with disdain: ‘Of course, he’s a Metal person, born in the autumn, they don’t change their minds easily. I’m Wood, so I’m creative.’ While all this has to be a symptom of mania, you are taken right inside Wenda’s head, where her bizarre reality seems eminently plausible. As well as humour, I found considerable pathos in Wenda’s yearning for deeper meaning, ‘something more’ to life.
Stevenson reserves her best for last in ‘Garden Guerrillas’, a horticultural revenge conceived by an elderly widow whose son and his yuppie wife want to annex her territory and exile her to sheltered housing. With the patience of Capability Brown and the mind of a military strategist, she deploys her knowledge of plants to deconstruct the beautiful garden she has created. But has she killed the thing she loves?
King Solomon had it that a good woman is worth more than rubies. Stevenson’s Good Women are worth their weight in gold.
This review first appeared in the Sunday Herald.
Good Women by Jane Stevenson is published by Jonathan Cape (ISBN 0224073516) £16.99 HBK.