The People on Privilege Hill and Other Stories

By JANE GARDAM

Jane Gardam, who turned 80 in July, might be the most venerable overnight sensation in literary America today. While she’s often a contender for the biggest book prizes in her native England, her oeuvre (nearly 30 volumes to date) has only recently begun to hop the pond. In 2006, Europa published a handsome edition of her spectacular 12th novel, Old Filth, followed in 2007 by a reprint of her Whitbread Prize–winning 1991 novel, Queen of the Tambourine. For readers unfamiliar with Gardam and for those who long for more, Europa’s release of her latest story collection will be a pleasure. Some of the volume’s 14 stories are nearly as spacious as novels, while others are bright snapshots. But all showcase the keen intelligence that presides over these inventions. Several tales examine the tragicomic dislocations of old age, including the title story, which reintroduces Sir Edward Feathers, the octogenarian hero of Old Filth, and “Babette,” whose title character is “a creature of tatters and wisps, in a long coat and a none-too-clean balaclava helmet.” In “Pangbourne,” a rich old woman falls convincingly in love with a gorilla, while “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones” tells of a dreamy old aristocrat, more at home with ghosts than with the living, who’s accused, absurdly, of rape. Ghosts waft through other stories here, and the macabre turns sci-fi in “The Flight Path,” an eerie glimpse of the London Blitz. But my favorite, “The Hair of the Dog,” is more earthbound: after years away, a grandmother returns to a now-unfamiliar London, swarming and frantic. Suddenly, a lull drops over the city, and tears come with “the beauty of the silence, its promise.” Gardam’s literature lives in that deep breath, in the silences among the clamor of everyday life, where everything — past, present, and future — is taking place.