Notwithstanding By Louis de Bernieres
British author Louis de Bernieres has set most of his stories in exotic places, but now, in this interlinked collection of short stories, he explores the exoticism to be found on his home turf.
Notwithstanding is a series of quirky tales loosely based on the Surrey village where the author grew up. By turns poignant and comic, de Bernieres writes of English country life before the townies moved in and bought up all the cottages for weekend getaways.
There's a real sense of nostalgia here, particularly in the earlier stories like The Girt Pike, where a young boy catches a legendary fish and is rewarded with lashings of tea and peanut-butter sandwiches.
Other stories are really extended jokes - like Colonel Barkwell, Troodos And The Fish - a tale of suspected food poisoning among the upper classes that hinges on the final line.
There is a large cast of eccentrics: Mrs Mac, the spiritualist, who lives with her dead husband; the retired general who forgets to wear his pants; several people who talk to a spider in a potting shed.
Other characters pass through quickly, leaving a sense of the rhythms of country life - the nuns who drive dangerously, the hedging and ditching man always to be found somewhere close by doing his work, a lady who dresses in plus-fours and shoots squirrels. Gradually, these rather wistful and sentimental sketches of their lives build up a bigger picture of a village that, to begin with at least, seems a rural idyll.
Gradually, though, as you move through the book, you find stories laced with heartbreak and loss as those connected to the land die or move away and the old England begins to vanish until, by the end, the feeling left is mainly sadness. In his afterword, the author laments the way English country villages have misplaced their sense of community as they've been "townified".
These stories are really hymns to de Bernieres' lost youth and the way things were. There's something quite old-fashioned about them, but that's not a criticism. Occasionally he gets a bit preachy, but for the most part the stories are entertaining, meticulously constructed, lightly written, never showy, well-balanced between dark and light, and with a beginning, a middle and an end - the way all good stories used to be.