Cynthia Flood’s new collection of linked short stories, The English Stories (Biblioasis), reminds me of the British boarding-school novels that were all the rage when I was a girl, but The English Stories are about real life: the girls who have power cruelly enforce their own class system on the weaker girls, who, in their turn, torment those who are worse off than they are and everyone, including the teachers, grapple in secret with their own demons.
It’s the 1950s, and Amanda, a young Canadian girl, is living with her parents in the Green House, a residental hotel in Oxford, England. When Amanda isn't trying to fit in as a day-girl at a boarding school (it's a frock not a dress, and sweets, not candy) she’s getting to know but not often to understand the eccentric occupants of the Green House. These include the seventy-year-old twins Milly and Tilly, who, in a hilarious exchange, solve the New York Times crossword puzzle without writing anything down; and the incontinent retired Professor McGeachie, who spends his time writing monographs and negotiating with the maid for a chance to fondle her breasts. Flood’s writing is rich yet compact, and as Amanda and the adult characters narrate their stories, a multi-layered picture emerges of lives limited by the class system and standards of propriety.
In contrast, Amanda and her Canadian parents seem open and straightforward while they are in England, though the opening story, which takes place before they leave Ontario, provides a good look at the Canadian social order as well.