California Literary Review

Book Review: The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories by Joan Aiken

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April 18th, 2011 at 9:00 am

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The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories
The Monkey’s Wedding: and Other Stories
Joan Aiken
Small Beer Press, 224 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


The Endless Search for Lost Things

In Joan Aiken’s story “The Monkey’s Wedding,” the narrator describes a familial and social drama unfolding around the location of a famous painting by the same name, which had been created and lost during the chaos and destruction of World War II. The painting itself is a fantastical vision of an everyday street scene, an extraordinary vision of quotidian life. The narrator confides that the painting had inspired a now common figure of speech. In the world of the story, people referring to a “monkey’s wedding” pointed to “a scene with sunshine viewed through rain, or rain seen through the sun’s rays.” In other words, the fictional idiom refers to a natural scene viewed through a filtering veil that imbues the scene with a little something extra. This “little something extra” is a dream-like quality executed with a brevity and wit that is a testament to Aiken’s skill as a story-teller. These sprightly little tales are tightly woven and economical while drawing a world at once whimsical and wicked, capricious and capacious.

The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories is a collection of nineteen stories, six of which are previously unpublished, from Aiken’s long and prolific career. They showcase a writer devoted to her craft and masterfully accomplished at the art of short fiction. In her brief introduction, Aiken describes her strategy for the writing of short stories, most of which have a dual genesis in Aiken’s dream world and reality. The weaving represented in her stories, tethers together elements both familiar and bizarre, threaded with a strand of the inexplicable. The pieces in this collection are tight knots or loose koans—sweet little puzzles. Told with the disarming guilelessness of parables, Aiken’s stories slip the apparent structure of their bounds at the last moment. For example, “The Monkey’s Wedding,” while describing the scrabble for the eponymously named painting, also explores the open-ended drama of a fractured family. Similarly, in “Honeymaroon,” a shiftless female Robinson Crusoe finds herself stranded on an island of highly organized, extremely verbose, and intensely political mice. Aiken’s whimsical description of Marx-spewing rodents encapsulates her human protagonist’s personal reconciliation to an unconventional marriage of convenience and questionable propriety.

Perhaps one of the most significant features of Aiken’s stories is the breath-taking skill with which she propels them forward. For example, the story described above, “Honeymaroon,” begins like this:

A wave swung high and lazily, with a curve like the white breast of a pouter pigeon, swept little Miss Roe clean off the deck of the elderly immigrant ship where she lay sleeping in the sun, and sucked her back under water without any noise or commotion; she vanished among sea-thistles, tangled ocean-daisies, foam-tips crossing this way and that, and the glitter of fins bright as mica. Nobody noticed; she was just a typist, with no relations, on her way to look for a job.

Negotiating the tenuous line between lush description and cryptic economy with great aplomb, Aiken delivers the unfortunate Miss Roe, an unwitting and surpassingly distracted Gulliver, to an island devoid of humankind. Aiken’s story unravels and leaps almost breathlessly from ship’s deck to fantasy isle and back again without lingering over logistical details or description beyond what gives heft and wonder to the worlds she creates.

Just as Miss Roe finds a sort of love at the end of her story, nearly all of Aiken’s stories in The Monkey’s Wedding meditate on the difficulty of love and human connection. In “Girl in a Whirl,” a man’s attempts to woo a daredevil girl are mitigated by the predatory meddling of a lascivious physician who attempts to cure the young woman of her contempt for the male sex. In “Red-Hot Favorite,” Robert, a confirmed bachelor and illustrator for a women’s magazine, has fled society to escape the sometimes amorous attentions of his readership. He quickly falls prey to a pair of horse-thieves. Capitalizing on Robert’s gullibility, acute myopia, and conviction that he can never win anything, these thieves inadvertently put the young man on a path to blissful, if myopic, domesticity. Indeed, the young artist discovers that he never apprehends or paints beauty so well as when he sees it without his glasses—blurred, as in a waking dream.

The difficulties and complexities of relationships are further stymied in Aiken’s stories by a thematic interest in feminine grotesques. Aiken’s female characters are dynamic, if also vacuous, emotionally absent, contemptuous, or stubborn. Notable in this regard is the story “Hair,” in which a man mourning the recent death of his vivacious young wife sets out to fulfill her request that he deliver her hair to her mother. The young woman, Sarah, “wore herself out” with living as soon as an inheritance enabled her to leave her mother’s lonely home outside of London. Explaining to her new husband that she had “lived in an atmosphere of continuous death for twenty-one years,” she threw herself into living with a ferocity that led to her speedy expiration. Arriving to deliver the precious package of his wife’s hair to her mother, the husband discovers a home like “an airless graveyard,” where the fat spider of a mother sucks the life out of the ailing persons in her care. Escaping from the house, like his wife before him, the husband discovers that the mild-tempered, but slippery, old woman has effectually stolen Sarah away from him, even in death.

Aiken’s vivid descriptions move nimbly through pastoral meadows and circus chaos, gothic grotesques and quirky romances. In the end, all of her narratives tease the reader by rejecting our desire for neatness or closure. No didacticism here. As Aiken’s narrator sweetly laments, “No moral to this story, you will be saying, and I am afraid it is true.”

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