Book review: Letting Go – A Timeline of Tales, by Gerda Stevenson

The short stories in this astonishing collection deal with the transforming power of love in all its forms, writes Joyce McMillan

Gerda Stevenson
Gerda Stevenson

Shall there be womanly times, or shall we die? It’s almost 40 years, now, since the writer Ian McEwan first asked that troubling question; and those seeking a glimpse of how womanly times might look, in all their passion and complexity, might be wise to immerse themselves in this splendid and gripping collection of 12 short stories by the astonishing Gerda Stevenson, singer and songwriter, actress and poet, director of film and theatre, and writer of plays and stories.

Arranged in a rough chronological order according their setting, Stevenson’s stories carry us from a Borders village in the 19th century, through the Second World War and the era of Stevenson’s own postwar youth, into a future profoundly altered by pandemic and climate change. What is instantly striking – apart from the breathtaking, page-turning fluency with which Stevenson writes both in English, and in a powerful and lyrical Border Scots – is how many of the stories are explicitly about love; both the radical, life-changing force of romantic and sexual love, and the equal weight of love that binds a woman to a grown child with special needs, and special insights.

In all three of the collection’s opening stories, women are empowered to leave oppressive or limiting communities by their love for a man who is an outsider. Then in The Apple Tree – the story reflected in the book’s beautiful cover illustration by Stevenson’s daughter Galina MacNeacail – we see a woman drawn by love towards the culture and language of a strictly religious Gaelic-speaking community; and in the final, earth-shaking story, Skeleton Wummin – already transformed into a play, and a National Theatre of Scotland lockdown film – a woman who has literally lost everything except her last few bare bones, finds that she can still love, and desire, and find rebirth, amid the melting ice of the far north.

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    Letting Go, by Gerda Stevenson

    And in between, there are stories that reflect more immediately on the society we live in: on a woman struggling to care for her daughter, while marvelling at the gifts that come with her daughter’s “extra chromosome”, on love and loss at a minimum-wage battery chicken farm, or – memorably – on a failed family emigration to apartheid South Africa, in the 1960s.

    Now in her Sixties, Stevenson often seems conscious, in these stories, of the need to “let go” of the burdens of history and memory that gather round us in later life. Yet it’s the paradox and beauty of these stories that they also seem to glow with a youthful, forward-moving energy. If Stevenson is letting go, in other words, it seems less like a renunciation of life, and more like a preparation for travelling faster and more lightly into a future both strange beyond imagination, and still capable of being shaped by the transforming power of love.

    Letting Go – A Timeline of Tales, by Gerda Stevenson, Luath Press, £8.99

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