The Silk Peacock by Hilary West

This is an interesting and very varied collection of short stories. The overall style is literary fiction, but there are some murder mysteries mixed in there too. Most of the stories are strictly realistic, but some have elements of fantasy, like Dreamcatcher, about a man who sells dreams which can affect the person’s real life.

My favourite story was The Greenhouse. It’s a patient, poignant tale of an unmarried woman, Lilian, who appears to have given up on life and spends all her time in her greenhouse, until she meets a new neighbour, Susan. The two women start to chat and to meet more often, and become friends. For Lilian, who has been completely isolated, the friendship is a lifeline. They chat in Lilian’s garden, and gradually the friendship becomes more intense.

At first they talked on the patio where the clematis trailed over the fence and occasionally brushed Susan’s blond hair with its green tendrils and violet and pink florets. Susan became prettier than ever when she was in complete harmony with Lilian’s garden. She fitted in, Lilian thought, if only because she was wearing the right colours. A symphony of pastels, the quiet music of the garden embraced and transformed the beguiling Susan and made her for Lilian quite perfect.

Lilian is sure that the feelings are mutual, and one hot day in the greenhouse she tries to caress Susan. But Susan recoils, runs away and never returns. The greenhouse once again becomes a place of refuge and retreat for Lilian, and also a place to reflect and mourn her loss through the flowers that remind her of her only true friend.

Gardens seem to be a favourite theme – the image of plants comes up several times in different stories, and in all of them it’s handled very well. In Lilies of the Morning, for example, a couple plant out a garden in remembrance of their abducted son, and focus their attention on a giant lily with orange-red petals. For the wife, the lily is a way to connect with the son she still believes is alive; for the husband, it’s a way of mourning the son he believes to be dead.

The murder mysteries didn’t work so well for me, but then I don’t tend to like murder stories very much. They felt very elaborate, with solutions that were clever and unexpected, but sometimes bizarre in their complexity. The best stories, for me, were the ones that, like The Greenhouse, focused on simpler human relationships and told compelling stories with good imagery and excellent use of language.

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There are 4 comments

  1. “The Greenhouse’ in particular sounds really good. Stories of misunderstandings about feelings hat lead to loss can be so very poignant.

    I likely would like the non – mystery stories best too.

  2. Nice review, Andrew! This looks like a beautiful book. I loved your description of ‘The Greenhouse’. How did you discover this book?

    1. Hi Vishy
      I met the author on Twitter. Have found myself discovering quite a few new books that way recently, and it’s good – I often end up trying something different from my usual choices.

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