Magazine article The Spectator

A Bleak Kind of Optimism

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bleak Kind of Optimism

Article excerpt

Fatema Ahmed THE WHORE'S CHILD by Richard Russo Chatto, L10.99, pp. 225, ISBN 0701173300

After several acclaimed novels, including last year's Pulitzer prize-winning Empire Falls, Richard Russo has now produced a volume of short stories. However, the qualities which endear the novels to their readers - a wry sense of humour, vivid characterisation and the sense of lives being lived over time - are less apparent here; the shorter form has created a sterner and more uncomfortable writer.

In the title story, `the whore's child' is an elderly Belgian nun who joins the narrator's creative-writing class. Sister Ursula writes several accounts of her own life, the unchanging details of which are that she is the daughter of a prostitute, and that she was sent to a convent by a father she hardly knew and has spent the rest of her life worshipping. The nun's story, which goes through several drafts, is beyond the understanding of her fellow students, who criticise its content in endearingly inappropriate terms: `It's a victim story,' remarks one. `Isn't there a lot of misogyny in this story?' asks another. However, in the end it is a member of the class who grasps the truth about Sister Ursula and her 'father', and it is Russo's achievement that we both dread this painful revelation and suddenly feel that we have known it all along.

`Monhegan Light' provides surprises of a different kind. A disclosure from his spiteful sister-in-law leads a cinematographer to visit the artists' colony his dead wife went to every summer. …

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