The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers

I had not read any of Carson McCullers work until now and reading The Ballad of the Sad Café made me wish I had. The quiet clarity of her writing and her ability to observe such different characters has obviously influenced many of the American writers that I have read. I hear echoes of her voice in the edited Carver, in Flannery O’Connor and in Alice Munro. This is the kind of writing that makes you want to pick up your pen regardless of how good the outcome.

The greatest part of the book is taken up with the story ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’. Behind the circus of the café with its manly cross-eyed owner and its hunchbacked resident, is the sound of the chain gang building modern American with a wistful, heartfelt chorus. There is something of this eerie resonance that plays throughout the collection. McCullers stories are not given straight-forwards resolutions, but show the complexities of human life as reality impacts upon our hopes and dreams. Our need to delude ourselves, our difficulty in mapping emotion onto reason, is revealed and responded to with breath-taking care.

Whilst I of course preferred some stories to others, The Ballad of the Sad Café is a remarkable collection whose reflective qualities made me think of Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’. I’m not going to summarise the stories because I would urge you to read the book yourself.

Next week I’ll be reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, then Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin.

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