(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Peter Ho Davies’ first collection is notable for the variety of times and places in which the stories are set. “The Ugliest House in the World” and A Union take place in Wales, in different time periods. “Buoyancy”—about a man’s obsession with diving to the bottom of an old mining pool—and “The Silver Screen”—about a group of Malayan communists who fight the British—are set in Southeast Asia. “Relief” takes place in South Africa, among veterans of Rourke’s Drift, which was where British troops defeated the Zulus. Other stories take place in Patagonia and England.

In such a wide-ranging collection, many themes emerge. Some stories are shaped by tragedy, such as the death of a child or a suicide. Deception, both of self and others, underlies “Coventry” as well as “I Don’t Know, What Do You Think?” Happy endings are rare; optimism, where it occurs, is hard won and never absolute. Occasionally there is humor, especially in the hilarious “The Silver Screen,” which also has its moments of horror, cruelty, and betrayal.

The dominant theme of Davies’ second collection is family relationships, particularly, as Davies put it, “the relationships between grown children and aging parents.” “Today Is Sunday” explores the antagonistic but affectionate relationship between a man and his father as they visit the father’s senile mother. In “Cakes for Baby,” a couple decide to support the wife’s divorced mother financially, even though it may mean postponing having children. In “Brave Girl,” a young girl has to cope with the separation of her parents; “On the Terraces” shows a mother and her elder son facing the death of a younger son from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), although they are never able to comprehend his homosexuality.

The tone of Davies’ stories is often detached, tending to the unemotional. His writing is crisp and lucid, and the images are precisely observed. The stories are quietly compassionate; Davies is reluctant to judge human foibles, preferring instead to delineate the complexity, the inconclusiveness of life, with its painful defeats and occasional small victories.

“The Ugliest House in the World”

Guilt and social resentments surface when a young physician visits his Welsh father, who has retired to a village in North Wales after forty years in England. The purpose of the son’s visit is to attend the funeral of Gareth, a neighborhood boy who was killed when a stone gatepost on the father’s property fell on him.

At the funeral, local people accuse the father of negligence, a charge that adds to his feelings of guilt. Underlying the hostility is the feeling that the father is an outsider, even though he was born in the village. The next day, Welsh nationalist slogans are daubed on the father’s house. The son, however, believes no one was to blame for the boy’s death, and he appears to understand neither the local resentments nor the depth of his father’s feelings. The latter are revealed when, in the emotional climax of the story, the father goes to great lengths to catch a fish that he had promised to Gareth and presents it to the boy’s mother instead.

In an ironic conclusion, the son whitewashes his father’s cottage. When he has finished, it shines brightly in the morning sun. The reader suspects that the feelings of guilt that the tragic incident has caused, and the social strife it has aroused, will not be so easily healed.

A Union

This novella about a strike at a Welsh quarry in 1899 explores the themes of shame and responsibility. To whom is a man responsible when he goes on strike—his fellow workers or his wife and family? Davies explores this theme in the subtly drawn tensions that surface in the...

(The entire section is 1569 words.)