The ballast of great American literature

The Ballad of the Sad Café

By Carson McCullers

The first book I reviewed on this blog was The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, over two years ago. I knew I’d return to her writing some day, so I was delighted to find a copy of Sad Café for sale in a charity shop, charging 10p. It’s probably the most undervalued book I own!

What a brilliant collection of stories this is. The novella that lends its title to the entire collection is a perfect study of Miss Amelia, her hunchbacked companion Cousin Lymon and her ex-husband Marvin Macy. The novella contains some wonderful descriptions of these characters: as is true with friends in life, you feel as if you know them deeply and yet they remain enigmatic at the same time. You can’t ever know someone completely. McCullers gives us just enough of her protagonist, Miss Amelia, to understand her motivations in life. And yet the author holds something back, making Miss Amelia mysterious and unfathomable in the final analysis. It makes for an intriguing story.

As with Wedding, the stories here are filled with exquisite evocations of place and time. Sad Café occurs in a small, wood shack of a town, dusty roads, nosy residents. McCullers puts you in the middle of it – in the café itself, among the moonshine swillers and the hefty wooden furniture. The other stories are equally capable of dropping the reader into their setting, perhaps none more so than A Domestic Dilemma, in which a man confronts his wife’s alcoholism. Arguably a much crisper representation of suburban domestic horror than The Women’s Room, albeit from the husband’s perspective, this story manages to suggest that the home is no cruise ship. The husband sees his wife’s problem, tries to protect their children from it and even tries to help his wife. And yet the heartbreaking conclusion is his apparent admission that he can’t do much for her and that perhaps this is the way it is. The story is a much more nuanced way to address the domestic question than The Women’s Room. It is not combative from the outside; it merely shows from the inside of these characters how awful the social structure of marriage and family can be.

Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland is a brilliant title, and the story contained within it just as good. The tale is a brief exploration of one simple observation: that some people lie for the sake of lying. We all know someone who does this and, while McCullers can’t answer why people do it, she outlines its effect on those around them. Enlightening observational stuff, McCullers. Will it be another two years before I find you again?

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