Pushkin has reprinted a series of short stories by Bourdouxhe that were translated by Faith Evens for publication by the Woman’s Press in 1989. At the time, they were the first English translations of most of her work which, as a Belgian, had been written in French. Recognised as a significant feminist writer before the Second World War, much of her writing had been disrupted by subsequent events – this is a gathering of eight pieces spanning the late 1940s to 1981. All are very woman-centred and deal with ordinary life and inner thoughts that carry women through their days and lives. With the exception of “Sous Le Pont Mirabeau” which – showing a woman giving birth on the day of the German invasion of Paris and coping with the subsequent, disruption and confusion – surely has to be strongly autobiographical – the others take a day, a moment or an incident and show a woman’s double life of the public face around others and the private. But the dreams and fantasies, good and bad, used to survive need not be true – or do they?

In “A Nail, A Rose” we follow Irene, not able to build a relationship, who is attacked by a stranger in the street and her ongoing “relationship” with the attacker. In “Rene” a holiday maker in a hairdressers is subsequently attacked and killed by the temporary male worker in the salon for transgressing his satisfaction. “Anna” married and working in the family garage ruminates on her life and her dissatisfaction with her ageing body and how she can build positive moments to take her through life, a life peopled with a carelessly abusive and violent husband. In “Louise” a single mother builds a “happy moment” (with the kindness of her employer) in an “otherwise everyday life of slow ordinary days, days of no hope”. ”Leah” – in a more political tale works – in a café and waits for a friend, a man committed to a strike in his local factory that will peter out into nothingness, reflecting her own incapacity to alter things around her for the better. “Clara” sits with Lemie as she dies from her second suicide attempt.” Blonde” is a stay at home wife and mother who needs her “dreams to help me” get through her routine days.

None of these are earth-shattering action tales, but instead are deeply embedded in the female experience of many at this time. They are varied but with social structures where financial security is vested in being married – and marriage means compromise and living up to male (and other) expectations. Failure to meet these – even in peacetime – can lead to almost casual violence. The women all seem immersed in their place, with the inability to move far beyond it, however unsatisfactory, except by living elsewhere in the mind. It might be said that this is “times past” but it is perhaps also the issue of being depressed to the point of not even knowing how to move beyond the then present.

This is an important historic read to show – perhaps – how women have advanced with more economic freedoms available to some. But this does not make it a comfortable one. Bourdouxhe was inevitably a creature of her times, living through not one but two World Wars, their immediate disruptions and the resultant economic chaos that they caused. Her writing was undoubtedly her form of resistance to a restricted life – with the recognition that an alternative was something of value and to be sought for. But, like reading Sylvia Plath too, the reader can see the cost of the life they live on the creative woman when they cannot clearly see a way beyond social pressures and norms to where they would like to be.

This book might appeal to certain book groups that focus on women, their feelings and experiences. Others might find it depressing or dated.

Hilary White 4/4

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe
Pushkin Press 9781782275138 pbk Jun 2019