Chestnut Street (by Maeve Binchy)

I always enjoyed the late Maeve Binchy’s thoughtful fiction, although some of it was a bit depressing. However, I didn’t like her short stories (on the whole) as much as I liked her lengthy novels. So when I saw that a final collection of Binchy’s short stories had been published posthumously as ‘Chestnut Street’ in 2014, I didn’t immediately place it on my wishlist. But on a trip to the UK towards the end of last year, I spotted it in a charity shop and it was not a hard decision to spend a pound buying it.

It’s good that I knew it was a collection of short stories; apparently some readers thought it was a novel, and were disappointed. Moreover, it’s a collection put together from manuscripts found in the author’s desk, so it’s not surprising that some of them feel a tad unfinished. The links between the stories are tenuous; the one thread is that all the main characters either live (or grew up in) a thirty-house residential street in Binchy’s imagination, known as Chestnut Street.

There are a few people who recur - the blind Miss Mack, who is full of wisdom, for instance, and the taxi-driver Kevin who observes plenty, but is mostly considered invisible by those who book his services. But most of the stories are one-offs. The characters are lightly sketched, yet it’s a testament to the Maeve Binchy’s rich world that she peopled an entire street with folk who don’t appear in any of her novels. Each one has a story; many of them have secrets.

We meet, for instance, the young teenage Molly. She’s not particularly popular, but has a wonderful mother whom all her classmates love. It’s only as she grows up that she discovers the secrets her mother is carrying; and even then they’re only hinted at, in clever writing that reveals to the reader far more than the protagonist understands. Then there’s grumpy Jim O’Brian, who cut contact with his family years ago. But he’s in hospital, and needs a relative to vouch for him. So he contacts his niece, a strong-minded girl who manages to break down some of his defences.

All the stories are about relationships of one kind or another. People fall in love, fall out of love, have good - or bad - relationships with their children, or their aunts or uncles. Some of the stories are set away from Chestnut Street, some take place in the street itself. Each of the characters is different, and even with the limitations of a short story, I had a general feel for each one, whether likeable or not. It’s a gift to be able to write about unlikeable characters while making them realistic and interesting, but Maeve Binchy had that gift.

It’s not necessarily a book I would read again, nor one I’d recommend as a starting point to this author’s work. But if you have liked her novels, and would like a final glimpse into her fictional world, this is a pleasant and, in places, moving collection.

I suspect if Maeve Binchy had lived longer she might have tweaked some of the stories where the endings peter out rather than offering any real conclusion. But somehow it doesn’t matter too much. These short stories make easy light reading, shedding light on some of the foibles of humanity, and I’m glad I’ve finally read the book.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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