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Friday, 13 February 2015

Book Review: Four Stories by Alan Bennett

Four Stories compiles 'The Laying on of Hands', 'The Clothes They Stood Up In', 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' and 'The Lady in the Van' in one collection. All display Bennett's trademark humour and skills of observation whilst looking at vastly different situations. 'The Laying on of Hands' takes place at the funeral of a masseur who seemed to have some very famous clients (including the presiding vicar), all of whom are a bit concerned about his cause of death. 'The Clothes They Stood Up In' tells the story of a couple who come home from the opera to find their flat has been stripped of everything from the curtain rings and light fittings up. 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' is about a school teacher who goes to see his dying father while 'The Lady in the Van' is the true story of the woman who ended up living on Alan Bennett's drive (and you have no idea how much I'm looking forward to seeing Maggie Smith take on that role in the near future).

I thought I enjoyed the first piece in this collection, then I read the second and enjoyed it more. I wasn't as keen on the third piece but the final one easily became my favourite and left me laughing in the early hours of the morning. Firstly, 'The Laying on of Hands' is a brilliantly witty analysis of modern culture with some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. Both the images of celebrity and religion which Bennett depicts in this story are recognisable and there are numerous asides that showcase Bennett's peculiarly British humour.

'The Clothes They Stood Up In' explores the upheaval caused by this wholesale burglary and the way it forces Mr and Mrs Ransome to adjust, which the latter does with more success. I particularly enjoyed her connecting with the places in her vicinity which she had never contemplated visiting before. I also appreciated the resolutions of the tale and found it a very compact and fulfilling story that nevertheless says a great deal.

I think my problem with 'Father! Father! Burning Bright' was that it just didn't seem to have the same flow the others have. Quite often I got disorientated about who was saying what and where, possibly symptomatic of its roots in visual drama. Also, I disliked pretty much every character and didn't care much about them, the honourable exception being Aunty Kitty.

'The Lady in the Van' is easily my favourite piece, told with understated Bennett humour and all the more enjoyable (as cruel as that sounds) for being true. It's full of little incidents that create a grotesque picture of life inside and outside that van with Bennett's postscript adding some fascinating notes about her life and history.

All in all, this was a pretty good collection, and I'll definitely be reading three of the stories again.

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