The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories by Marjorie Barnard is a collection of stories that often left me breathless. Some of them even have a sort of Flannery O’Connor feel to them, an every day, unsentimental piece of life with an ending I didn’t see coming that leaves me with a feeling akin to being punched in the stomach. I don’t like being punched in the stomach in general, but when a book does it, it makes me happy, which reveals my secret book masochist self. Not all stories are like that, just enough to notice. Other stories were just plain sad and sometimes left me crying.
Many of the stories are about women. Take, for instance, “Beauty is Strength.” A woman goes into a beauty salon to have her hair done. These days we tend to think of salons more like spas, places we go to be pampered. But this is Australia sometime in the 1950s where a beauty salon is not a spa but where women go to armor themselves against the signs of aging. There is a distinct power differential between the women who work in the salon and the women who go there for services. The women who work there know of all the physical flaws of the women who come in. They know how gray their hair is, the flaws that are hidden by makeup and stylish clothes. A woman sitting under the hair dryer, devoid of makeup and surrounded by mirrors sees the truth about her face, is forced to notice the wrinkles and other ravages of time.
Several stories are about marriage. In “It Will Grow Anywhere” we learn that even the perfect wife is not safe, that she can actually be so perfect her husband decides to divorce her. “The Lottery” is about a woman who wins £5,000 in the Australian lottery. She doesn’t call her husband at work to tell him, he finds out from friends on the way home from work who had read about it in the paper. He wonders where his wife got the money to even buy a ticket and begins accusing her in his mind because he is sure she must have somehow stolen it from the money he gives her to run the house. While his anger at his wife grows, he imagines how he might spend the money.
Then there are the stories that are devastating like “The Hat.” Gwenda’s children decide their mother needs a new hat. Her current one is old and shabby. They send her to an upscale shop and tell her to choose whatever she wants and to not worry about the price. Gwenda is thrilled. She sees a beautiful hat, stylish and jaunty, tells the saleswoman she’d like to try it on. The saleswoman says no, that is not a hat for her, she has something more suitable in the back. While the saleswoman is away, Gwenda makes the mistake of trying on the hat.
The most devastating story of all, however, was one called “Fighting in Vienna.” It takes place in Vienna during WWI. Kathie is a young woman who lives all alone, her family either dead or off fighting in the war. She needs to go out one afternoon to get some seed for her bird who continues to sing despite everything. I have to leave it at that because I am starting to cry just typing this.
The author of The Persimmon Tree and Other Stories, Marjorie Barnard, is Australian and was quite the writer in her day and, in my opinion, should be given more attention, especially in the U.S. where her books are hard to find. The edition of the book I read is a Virago for all you Virago fans out there.
I’m counting this book as the first completion in the Bloglily Summer Reading Program. The category it falls under is “recommended by a librarian” (that would be Whispering Gums). Under the rules of the program I am also supposed to suggest a readalike. I have two suggestions: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, and the short stories of Kate Chopin (10 pts). I also checked the book out from my library (10 pts), wrote about it (10 pts), and wrote it down in my Program Booklet (10 pts). I’m up 40 points already. Woo! I really want to win a boomerang.