Domestic dramas are explored in this fine collection from Penelope Mortimer.
Despite a busy and complex personal life, English writer Penelope Mortimer managed to fit in a career as a journalist and novelist, writing over a dozen books. Saturday Lunch with the Brownings was Mortimer's only book of short stories, published in 1960.
In this collection of 12 stories, Mortimer covers a storm of domestic dramas, mostly involving disgruntled husbands and put-upon, overworked wives. The children of these unions are also fairly disturbed, navigating feelings of guilt and abandonment. It's all quite a mess, reminiscent of Christina's Stead's classic The Man Who Loved Children.
In the title story, we are invited to lunch with the unhappy Browning family, where there is a blow up between step father and daughter; “Little Mrs Perkins” details a stay in a maternity ward, where a woman convalescing with her new born overhears several fraught conversations; a rather creepy father performs a bizarre ritual in “The King of Kissingdom”, one that involves secrets and betrayals; and in the stand-out story, the hilarious “Such a Super Evening”, a dinner party is held for a famous literary couple, the hostess almost having a nervous breakdown trying to keep everyone happy.
While most of the stories in this collection describe the messy, complicated and emotionally fraught circumstances of family life – the meltdowns, the anger and rage – Mortimer keeps things lively with her excellent pacing and gripping portraits. There's also some great doses of humour. In one story obstetricians are described as looking like matinee idols that suddenly struck oil in middle age. Mortimer elsewhere exhibits a quick wit that is exhilarating.
A savagely honest collection told with consummate skill.
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, by Penelope Mortimer. Daunt Books. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books