Book review – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman coverThe title of this short story collection by Margaret Drabble was enough to make me put it on my wishlist. There was no doubt in my mind that the smiles of the woman in question would be hiding a multitude of less presentable emotions.

The women in Drabble’s tales are often to be found smiling in the face of adversity. They’re quietly courageous individuals, usually unnoticed for the most part by the boorish men in their lives, and that’s how they like it, because it frees them up to get on with the serious job of living.

This particular collection from Penguin Modern Classics is laid out nose to tail, by which I mean the stories are organised chronologically according to original publication dates, beginning with Hassan’s Tower, published in 1966, and culminating with Stepping Westward, dating from 2000. As a result, we get a sense of Drabble growing and developing with her narratives. Her characters age and so do their preoccupations, not to mention their self-confidence.

In A Voyage To Cythera, a woman is thrust into helping a man to contact his beloved, and gains a glimpse of a world that fills her with a yearning as palpable as thirst. In Faithful Lovers an illicit couple reconnect, by a happenchance contrived by one if not both of them. In A Pyrrhic Victory, a young girl tries to disguise her passion for the beauty of her surroundings from her more cynical companions. In none of these tales does very much at all happen, as characters wrestle with apparently trivial conundrums they dare not voice, but this is the magic of Drabble’s writing.

The details highlighted in her stories are selected with such care it’s as though they’ve been extracted from granite, then painstakingly polished to a gleam. A sardine tin is rashly dropped into a rock pool, a newly fixed lamp thrown against a wall: both acts of violence carried out by an otherwise sensible and level-headed woman. Female friendships, lust-riven affairs, a love of place and a desire for professional excellence are all illuminated here.

In the title story, Jenny Jamieson, a distinguished chat show host, is forced to contemplate her own mortality, and during a school prize giving where she is to give the keynote speech, thinks to herself: “I will never let anyone inside me again. Too often, now, I have politely opened my legs. It shall not happen again. Too many meals I have politely cooked, too many times have I apologised.”

This is a book of rational women for the most part long suppressing a torrent of emotions, which will inevitably blaze out at some unforeseen moment, at which point all those around her will recoil and say, Well, where on earth did that come from?

There is a sly humour rippling through the scenes conjured by Drabble, an acknowledgement to women of the layers we each comprise, and a whisper to the rest of the world that could really be taken as a warning. What happens on the surface barely hints at the turmoil, and strength, beneath. Ignore that fact at your peril.

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: The Collected Short Stories by Margaret Drabble is published by Penguin Modern Classics and is available to buy from Amazon.

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