Treasury by Maeve Binchy
After the underwhelming experience that was Irish writer Maeve Binchy’s most recent new work, 2010’s Minding Frankie, I approached her latest, Treasury, with trepidation.
However, it’s not really fresh writing, but a compilation of 43 short stories, 38 of which have previously been published (in The Return Journey and This Year It Will Be Different). And the nearly 550 pages add up to diverting, at times delightful, escapism.
A preponderance of the first half of Treasury’s stories are Christmas-themed, reflective of the seasonal nature of its issuance, and its fair to say repetitiveness is the book’s greatest weakness: Binchy has a few tried-and-tested plotlines and tends to variations on the same theme. ‘Gerald and Rose’ records a brief encounter between strangers who pay the price for their mistaken assumptions about one another, while ‘The Christmas Barramundi’, a more cynical version of the same tale, though one of much greater pathos, features a young teacher who segues from intense happiness to heartbreak in a handful of carefully wrought pages.
But it’s a very small failing. Many of the Christmas stories are excellent, and the best of the others may be the opening tale, ‘Golden Willow’, a suspenseful piece about a weekend in the life of an ostensibly privileged wife and mother. Her innermost thoughts are tracked as she comes abruptly and vocally to terms with her dissatisfaction with her life, and with the behaviour of her distant, status-obsessed husband.
This kind of woman – one who starts out meek and discovers her inner lioness – is presented also in ‘A Civilized Christmas’ and ‘This Year It Will Be Different’, and such rapid evolution might be considered a flaw. Binchy is also prone to resolutions too pat, too uncomplicated to properly reflect the messiness of life – but there is something immensely satisfying about her female characters’ propensity to wash their hands of problems, of unsuitable circumstances/men/relatives, and plough on unfettered. In the weight of a single volume, it becomes self-helpish, as if the writer is saying, over and over again, with different players, “Well, here is a recipe for living.”
Binchy writes for women, and places them front and centre. Many stories have a bittersweet tone, such as ‘The Apprenticeship’, which follows an accomplished young woman as she attends the wedding of her childhood best friend, who has bestowed on herself a new name and invented past in order to fit in with her aristocratic new in-laws.
In others Binchy shows off her knack for fomenting splendid comic tension, most ably in ‘Excitement’ when an embryonic affair devolves into a scene of near-slapstick involving a hateful mother and her purse-lipped acquaintance.
And there are some stock characters, with ‘Season of Fuss’ and ‘A Hundred Milligrams’ among the most notable stories to star curmudgeonly elders against whose misanthropic assaults other, good-hearted sorts battle to maintain the true spirit of Christmas.
But in the end – similar to the adage that people remember less what you say than how you make them feel – Binchy’s storylines are secondary to the moods her tales provoke. Her Treasury may leave you melancholy, quizzical, nostalgic or teary-eyed, but it won’t leave you unmoved.
2.5 / 5 stars: Many happy returns of the season.
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