This week I finished reading my first (grown-up) collection of short stories. It’s something I don’t usually do but since the collection in question is Jigs & Reels, the only Joanne Harris offering I had yet to read, I thought I’d have a go.
I don’t know exactly what it is about short stories that always stops me picking up a collection. When I was at school I read The Signalman by Charles Dickens and Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl and I enjoyed them both but somehow the fact that the tale doesn’t take chapters and chapters to unfold makes me feel like it isn’t worth the effort.
This might sound strange but I have to say that I did find it exhausting at times reading J&R. I like to get really into a book, to care about the characters and take the time to get to know them and anticipate where the story might take them. With a narrative that finishes in a few pages it’s impossible to do that and meeting new people in new situations every twenty minutes or so I did find mentally tiring.
However I’m not being negative here, I really enjoyed reading Jigs & Reels; there were some genuinely touching stories such as Hope and Faith Go Shopping, some funny tales (Class of ’81) and some which made you stop and think (The Spectator). The brief introduction to each story gave you an idea of how it came about and what it meant to the author which was a nice personal touch. It was the stories featuring an older protagonist which were my clear favourites including Hope and Faith and Breakfast at Tesco’s mostly because Harris writes older people so very well. By far my favourite character in Chocolat was Armande and the spirit and defiance she showed were also present in the older characters in J&R. They are a joy to read and Hope and Faith which is the first story in the book left me not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
Other stories weren’t such a triumph, Gastronomicon made me smile a little but it was a bit too abstract for my taste and there was one other (which I won’t name) that I had to stop reading because I couldn’t follow what was happening. However these were the only two slightly bum notes in an otherwise brilliant collection of 22 tales. Even the narratives which had a political message (which I often find laboured and unappealing) sparkled with wit and were executed in such a way that you don’t get the full force of the message until the last minute.
So although I would hesitate to say that I’ve been converted to the way of the short story, Jigs & Reels will remain on my bookshelf and even if I don’t read the whole book again some tales stand out as regulars who I will revisit time and again for the charm and humour that is so intricately woven into all of Harris’s books.