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'Smut: Two Unseemly Stories' consists of two novellas, 'The Greening of Mrs Donaldson' and 'The Shielding of Mrs Forbes'. Both are slight but well-observed and nimbly narrated stories about sex and manners.
In 'The Greening of Mrs Donaldson', a newly widowed woman has to make ends meet; she takes in lodgers (initially a medical student and her boyfriend) and finds herself employed at a local medical school as a standardized or simulated patient (a patient instructor), joining several other stalwart characters in feigning illnesses and ailments for the educational benefit of training doctors. When her tenants do not have the money to pay their rent, they find another way of reimbursing Mrs Donaldson. 'The Shielding of Mrs Forbes' is about the marriage of vain handsome Graham Forbes to a wealthy, although not particularly beautiful, woman, much to the frustrated dismay of his mother. In both novellas, secrets about sex and surprising erotic arrangments threaten the measured, middle class lives of the Donaldson and Forbes families.
Summary:In this series of six linked stories the narrator, Sara Boyd, weaves together stories of loss: her father's death when she was twelve, her husband's diagnosis of terminal kidney cancer, her mother's recurrent descent into mental illness, and even the death of a beloved dog. The stories merge in ways that reinforce the notion that new griefs bring up old ones, and that the trajectories of mourning are unpredictable and sometimes surprising in the conflicting currents of emotion they evoke. Sara doesn't present her life only in terms of losses, but the losses frame the story in such a way as to suggest that while key losses may not trump all other life-shaping events, they do organize and color them. The mother's mental illness is, in its way, a crueler loss than the death of Sara's beloved father, since hope of recovery keeps being dashed. Her siblings and children are marginal characters, but enter the stories enough to develop complex family contexts of caregiving.
The story of race-car driver Denny Swift, as told by his appealing dog, Enzo, is his death-basket memoir. Denny’s tale of woe seems endless. His wife, Eve, dies of a brain tumour and he is in a struggle with her parents for custody of his daughter Zoë. Making matters worse, he is falsely accused of raping a minor by a 15 year-old who has a crush on him.
Enzo would love to intervene. However, he is frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs—but he sees clearly the worth of his master and the need for careful perseverance—like racing in the rain.
In 1964, newly minted doctor, Barry Laverty, begins practice as the young assistant of crusty, seasoned, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly, in the small, Northern Irish village of Ballybucklebo. At first he thinks his new boss is fierce and unprofessional. But soon, Barry uncovers the sadness in the older doctor’s past and realizes that O’Reilly has excellent, clinical acumen. If he bends the rules, it is usually for the best.
Over the course of a month they face the ordinary struggles of general practice with Barry slowly learning the ropes: appendicitis in a child, a rushed delivery, pneumonia combined with heart failure, hypothyroidism, unwanted pregnancy, and stroke. And of course, the more minor staples of headache, cuts, and scrapes.
Not everything turns out well. Barry misses a diagnosis and cannot stop blaming himself, but his admission of the error to the patient’s wife is an important step in his education. The patients, however, leave the practice.
Social factors such as poverty, discrimination, and corruption of local officials pervade each vignette.
Barry also meets the beautiful Patricia—a survivor of polio—whose desire to pursue a career in civil engineering seems to pose an obstacle until all is happily resolved in the end.
Helga Crane is a beautiful young teacher in Naxos, a southern American boarding school for black students. She is half Danish on her mother’s side, half African-American on her father’s side. Her only family is an aunt and uncle in Denmark.
Dr. Anderson, a distinguished black teacher professes love for her, but she feels stifled by him and the vision of their life ahead. She quits her job and flees to New York and the exciting cultural life of Harlem.
She thrives in that environment and men flock to her. There she meets James Vayle whom she likes and the Reverend Pleasant Green whom she does not—but once again, when Vayle proposes permanence, she flees to Copenhagen.
There, she spends an extended visit with her Aunt Katrina and Uncle Poul. At first the Danish couple are startled by her blackness, but they quickly adapt and enjoy the elevated status conveyed by having this intelligent, beautiful black woman in their world. Upon receiving another offer of marriage, Helga grows suspicious of her family’s use of her and flees once again.
She returns to America where she marries the Reverend Pleasant Green, although she doesn’t love him. As babies come in succession, Helga develops severe post-partum depression.
Aminata Diallo, called Meena, is born in mid-eighteenth-century Africa and leads a happy life with her Muslim parents. Her mother is a midwife and is teaching Meena her skills. But ruthless white men appear, killing her parents and imprisoning her. The eleven year-old girl is forced to march miles and miles to the sea. During the journey she makes friends with Chekura, a slightly older boy who seems to be employed by the white captors, but like Meena, has also been captured. They are kept at a fort, then herded on to ships and taken on an agonizing journey across the ocean.
Meena and Chekura are sold as slaves. They lose sight of each other and live on plantations in privation and squalor never knowing if they will be treated with kindness or cruelty. Meena is raped by an owner. She learns how to read and write English quickly (although her skill must be kept secret), and she is fascinated by maps, constantly plotting to return to Africa.
Meena and Chekura find each other and marry secretly - but soon they are separated. She has a baby girl. Her literary and midwifery skills are her salvation, and eventually she is sold to a Jewish duty inspector. He and his wife treat her well, and she and her child live in comfort, but the revolutionary war disrupts their world. Meena returns home one day to find that the Jewish couple have fled on ship to England, taking her daughter with them..."for her own good."
Meena moves to New York City, taking a room in a hotel and still intent on finding a way back to Africa. She writes the names and ages of the people clamoring to go to Nova Scotia as a reward for serving the British in the Revolutionary War: the original "book of negroes." The settlers arrive with hope and optimism, but they encounter more oppressions. Later she is lured by the attractive plan to build "Freetown" in Sierra Leone; again however, the promised resources never materialize and the fledgling community degenerates into crime and misery. Even Meena's attempt to find her original home is thwarted.
In 1802 London, as a frail elderly woman, the abolitionists treat Meena with reverence and curiosity. They encourage her to write her story, and there she finds her daughter again.
In 1176, King Henry the II of England persuades the physician Adelia Aguilar to accompany his daughter, Princess Joanna, on her long journey from England to marry the King of Sicily. Adelia studied medicine in Salerno, but in the disbelieving, intolerant world of Northern Europe, she must hide her skills. She masquerades as the assistant of her own eunuch assistant, the Arab Mansur. Her task is to protect and preserve the health of the princess. The King convinces her to make the journey by holding Adelia’s own infant daughter as a hostage.
The procession is troubled by a murderer, who could be trying to attack the princess or her doctor. Joanna falls ill, and Adelia diagnoses appendicitis, and then performs an operation to save her life. The question then arises whether or not her future husband will accept a bride with a surgical scar.
As in the other three novels, Adelia also uses her medical skills to solve the murders—a forensic pathologist avant la lettre.
Two novellas are brought together. In the first, “Storm in June,” a host of people flee Paris in June 1941- -as the Germans occupied the city. They gather their money and most precious belongings and leave their homes, reasoning that there will be more safety in the countryside. But everyone has the same idea. The crush results in shortages of fuel, food and accommodation that radiate in ever widening ripples around the city. Many are duped by employers or by lovers. Some are robbed and even murdered by unscrupulous fellow citizens, and new conventions of behavior and bureaucracy are forged in the stress of the situation. The fortunes of several different individuals are interwoven in short chapters to explore a wide variety of adventures--tragic, miraculous, and poignantly banal. Among the most memorable is the little saga of the Michaud’s – a couple driven out of Paris, then back – all the while anxious for news of their son at the front.
The second novella, “Dolce,” is the story of the unhappily married Lucile whose husband has gone to the front. She must bide time in the home of her austere mother-in-law, Madame Angellier, who treats her with frank hostility. They are forced to billet a German officer. Lucile soon finds that she and the German share many interests in art and music; gradually the two fall in love, although they act upon their sentiments in conversation only. The full extent of their involvement must be concealed, but the community is aware and Lucile understands the potential consequences of “sleeping with the enemy.” Her mother-in-law hates her all the more for growing close to the occupier; yet their neighbours shamelessly prevail upon her connections to obtain minor favors.
When a local Frenchman kills a German soldier for allegedly courting his wife, the uneasy calm is destabilized. Almost by default, Lucile agrees to hide the fugitive murderer in her attic in bold proximity to her German tenant. The brave act is discovered by her mother-in-law who then (wrongly) perceives Lucile’s friendship with the German as a clever plot; her hatred turns to grudging admiration. Using her influence and a lie to obtain a pass from her unsuspecting German friend, Lucile escorts the ungrateful murderer to safety in Paris. The deception drives a wedge into her new relationship. They part never to meet again as his company is transferred to another place.
The wealthy financier, John William Stone, is found dead beneath the window of his home, having fallen, jumped, or been pushed. The will charges his widow, Elizabeth Lady Ravenscliff, with finding Stone’s lost child. She had known nothing about this episode in his life, but she is determined to honour his wish.
The story centers on a financial mystery told in three parts that move further back in time: London 1909, Paris 1890, and Venice 1867. Each story gives a different version of Elizabeth – none refutes any of the others.
In the first part, Elizabeth is cool, superior and in charge, but her grief is genuine. She hires Matthew Braddock to look for the missing child, suggesting that he pose as a hired biographer. The writer is smitten with Elizabeth and concludes that there was no lost child.
The second part is narrated by a spy, Henry Cort. In this version, Elizabeth began as a waif who became a high-class prostitute, involved in affairs of state. Addicted to drugs, she was dangerous and selfish, but Cort never realizes that she is his sister.
The last (but earliest) part is told by Stone himself about an affair he once had in Venice and its sorry end. The last few pages draw the disparate threads together and account cleverly for all the mysteries.
In 1543—the time of Henry VIII-Matthew Shardlake a hunchback lawyer, and his Jewish assistant, Barak, strive to solve a string of murders that, they quickly realize, are based on the seven vials in the Book of Revelation (chapter 16). They can almost predict when the next death will happen.
Barak is having trouble with his wife owing to a recent stillbirth that has deeply affected them both and driven them apart. Shardlake’s friend, Guy Malton, a Spanish-moorish physician acts as a medical consultant to their investigation. They encounter a boy and a woman both confined in Bethelham Hospital, the asylum known as Bedlam. A diagnostic dilemma arises over a problem of religious melancholy versus demonic possession.