October 2011

Kylee Stoor

fiction

The Monkey's Wedding by Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken's collection of short stories The Monkey's Wedding may sport a creepy cover illustration by artist and author Shelley Jackson, but the stories inside, which make the commonplace sinister, bear more of a resemblance to the work of another literary Jackson: the queen of the Gothic short story and author of The Lottery, Shirley Jackson. Like Shirley Jackson's elegantly suspenseful tales, Aiken's stories use the commonplace to show the darker truths beneath the familiar, but with a twist of humor and magic that makes the collection thought-provoking and fun, and one that begs to be shared and revisited often.

While Aiken is known mostly for her books for children, including The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and its sequels, she is a masterful storyteller, and this collection of stories for an older audience is a welcome addition to her body of work, for both seasoned Aiken readers and newcomers alike. This second posthumous collection from Small Beer Press, following The Serial Garden, a collection of Aiken's beloved Armitage family stories, includes tales written throughout Aiken's career, spanning from 1955 to 2003, six of which have never before been published and two written under the pseudonym Nicholas Dee. Many of these stories were written during Aiken's days as a copyeditor at the UK magazine Argosy, and they share a stylized elegance and youthful exuberance. The stories are playfully dark, weaving the sublime with the pastoral to jarring effect. An excellent example of this juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane is the book's darkly funny opening story, "A Mermaid too Many," in which a woman waiting for her lover to come home from a sea voyage is utterly disappointed with the gift he brings her: a bottled mermaid. Baffled by her reaction to his exotic gift, the dejected sailor attempts -- and nearly fails -- to find a new home for this creature with several acquaintances around town, only to discover something truly shocking at home in his bedroom. The nonchalance that greets the sailor and his mermaid is a delightful introduction to the deadpan treatment of the bizarre in Aiken's world. 

Like "A Mermaid too Many," the titular story also highlights an unusual item and shows that the truly disturbing can most likely be found at home. "The Monkey's Wedding" involves no monkeys or weddings; instead the story, one of the more grim tales in the collection, follows elderly Mrs. Invach as she waits for her famous artist son to return home with his prized painting "The Monkey's Wedding," which has been lost for decades following the family's flight from Nazi Germany and was recently unearthed in a war-torn Russian village. As Mrs. Invach anxiously awaits word that her son has safely returned from his quest to retrieve the painting, restlessly distracting herself from her worries by hunting for things she has lost around her house. She listens to recordings she has made of his habit of muttering as he paints and she muses about how their complicated past has affected their current relationship. While never veering entirely into supernatural territory, Mrs. Invach's obsessive love for her son colors the story, and her brusque manner and odd habits create a Hitchcockian suspense as her waiting becomes unbearable. 

In a story that fully embraces the unreal, domestic habits bring a bit of levity to a dire situation, enhancing the story's surreal atmosphere. "Honeymaroon" tells what happens when a woman inadvertently releases a pair of man-eating socialist mice into the world. Miss Roe is shipwrecked on a deserted island, alone but for the highly intelligent mice that populate it. After biding her time waiting for rescue by learning the mice's language and knitting herself some fetching garments from their fur, Miss Roe is finally rescued by a gruff group of sailors. She brings two young delinquent mice with her as a favor to the mouse society, only to discover that their dangerous-to-humans political views are highly contagious on the rescue ship.  

Throughout the story, Miss Roe barely blinks an eye at the strange things that occur, focusing instead on her "womanly" tasks, keeping house as best she can on the island and looking for a way to take care of the unruly sailors that haven't rescued her out of kindness. This extremely stereotypically feminine attitude and the absurdity it creates as Miss Roe innocently walks into danger adds a layer of bizarre sarcasm to the story that makes it one of my favorites.  

These three stories are just a few of the highlights of this consistently engrossing collection, and without gushing about every single story, it should suffice to say that this excellent group of stories is a fitting tribute to an excellent writer and storyteller. Aiken passed away a few years ago, and this posthumous collection is introduced by her daughter Lizza, who has taken an active role in curating her mother's archives and promoting her stories. Lizza mentions how fortunate she feels to have been a part of her mother's creative process, and luckily, she shares that good fortune with her mother's readers. 

The Monkey's Wedding by Joan Aiken
Small Beer Press
ISBN: 978-1931520744
224 pages