Book review: True North: Selected Stories, by Sara Maitland

This is a profound and significant collection of short stories, writes Stuart Kelly

Perhaps it was an intellectual hangover from reigniting my old interest in bibliography while reviewing Joseph Hone’s The Book Forger last week, but the first thing I did on receiving Sara Maitland’s selected stories, True North, was check out the paratexts. Paratexts, technically, are “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text”, to use Philippe Lejeune’s rather French deconstructionist definition. In more prosaic terms, it is all the gubbins that are in the book but that you don’t really need to read. So in this case, as a selected stories, we have the acknowledgments for reprinting (beneath the copyright and above a statement of Maitland’s moral right) which show a career stretching from Telling Tales (Journeyman Press, 1983), A Book Of Spells (Minerva, 1987) and Women Fly When Men Aren’t Watching (Virago, 1993). This shows two things. Firstly, Maitland has had a career of sufficient duration and prestige to warrant a “selected” volume. Secondly, it establishes immediately her themes: feminism, the supernatural and the nature of narrative itself. This is borne out by the book, which, for the sake of clarity, I should state is very, very good indeed.

More can be gleaned, though, from the beginning and end, the before and after of the book; specifically, the introduction and “A Note on the Selection”. The note is something I have never seen before. The bibliographer in me observes that it is a note on “the” selection in the contents and “this” selection when it appears: fair enough, as Maitland has published a great many short stories and another selection might easily be distilled from the same source. What is certainly rare if not unique is also both touching and magnanimous. Each of the stories has not been selected by Maitland, but by a “friend, colleague or family member”. One of them also provides the introduction, the Rev. Richard Coles. It is an introduction, rather than an essay or foreword – I personally have a slight aversion to authors prefacing their own work, which seems like being told what to think. This is like an introduction at a party, along the lines of “have you met my friend…” It is a warm-hearted and slightly gossipy appreciation, but leaves the reader in no doubt that this is a formidable author.

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Although I knew Maitland’s non-fiction work, especially A Book of Silence and Gossip from the Forest, and had interviewed her at festivals (a delightful experience as long as you are prepared to go the road less taken), I did not (shamefully) know much of her fictional work, although one story – “Claudia Procula Writes a Letter” – was so familiar I am sure I have either read it in an anthology or heard it. Maitland is a precise short story writer, each being a shard from a life or a glance over one. The various protagonists are realist, historical and fictional; so we encounter Rapunzel and Andromeda alongside rebellious trapeze artists, sort-of suffragettes and a woman caught up the Peasants’ Revolt. It would be too easy to classify these works as “magic realist”, and there is an undeniable if faint family resemblance to Angela Carter. That said, while Carter tends to be rambunctious and transgressive, Maitland is more eerily quiet. It does not seem surprising that even the moments of cataclysm and catastrophe in her stories come with a whispered stillness.

Her religion may not be orthodox but it is undeniably sincere. Perhaps my favourite in the book, “Miss Manning’s Angelic Moment”, is delicately balanced between the miraculous and the mundane, but what shines through is a quiet kindness, a gentleness and a moral bravery. The final sentence is positively numinous: she knows “a secret thing about him so that he would not be just the representative of Christ, nameless and personless behind the little grill, but real like her, only he would never know”. The placing of the word “just” is understatement as powerful as sfortzando. Being a religious writer does not mean being a saccharine writer. There is a steeliness in Maitland’s work which is shared with a writer like Nicola Barker, and it chimes with the sharp distinction drawn by Iris Murdoch when she called one of her finest novels The Nice And The Good. Maitland’s style revels in deploying scientific language alongside poetic lexicons, again with a necessary precision. In “Moss Witch” she describes the character’s hair as “the colour of winterkilled bracken”. The same story tells us the titular character “spoke the language of science and turned it into a love-song”, and the tones manage to weave between the “subtle beauty of seta, capsules and peristomes” and invocations of ancient, magic and the “lambent” light. The litany-like tolling of the word green seems to conjure subconsciously the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell’s description of the mind, “annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade”.

This is a profound and significant collection. An enterprising publisher might well consider reissuing her novels. As it is, this is a welcome glimpse into her oeuvre. Amongst her earlier non-fiction work are A Big-enough God: Artful Theology and Virtuous Magic: Women Saints and Their Meanings. The titles seem like the keys to unlock these enchanting works.

True North: Selected Stories, by Sara Maitland, Comma Press, £14.99