Monday, 13 August 2012

THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFÉ – Carson McCullers, 1951

In Plymouth in the 1970s we had a concrete monstrosity in the centre of town called Drake’s Circus. It has now been demolished to make way for the Drake’s Circus Mall, a collection of all the usual high street suspects.  The original, although riven with concrete cancer from the moment of its conception, contained a Tesco (the first supermarket I had ever seen) and a jumble of unique shops including Myrna’s which sold sewing items and Arcadia which was an Aladdin’s cave of toys, magazines and LPs. There were cafés, a bakery, a pet shop and Chapter and Verse, the greatest book shop I have ever known. It was great because it was small. It suggested books which you might like to read. There were no huge displays of the latest bestseller. You didn’t have to wade through Harry Potter in order to find Harry Morgan. My brother and I spent hours in there while our parents did the weekly ‘shop’ in Tesco. I miss shops like that. I wander about in Waterstones and still end up ordering a tatty old copy of what I really want on line. I truly don’t care how many Shades of Grey there are.

The best place now to browse at books is a charity shop. I may despair of the human race but it works to my benefit if people have no intention of opening the copy of the Classic some old aunt, three times removed, gave them for Christmas last year. The shelves of charity shops are brimming with literary gems. And long may it last – keep your Kathy Lette and throw out your Katherine Mansfield.

So, in a charity shop in Newark, I bought The Ballad of the Sad Café. I’ve given £1.50 towards the relief of some obscure skin disease, too.

What a discovery this was! This is a fantastic story about human nature and how fickle and unfair the human heart can be. Three unlikely characters form a love triangle. In its midst something tremendous is created; the café unites the whole town in the enjoyment of food and drink. At its denouement three lives are in tatters and there is only the shell of a building left to hint at what came before.

McCullers perfectly captures the Deep South small town atmosphere and captivates the reader with the style of her prose. She suggests what will come, then leads you back so that you are always on your toes.

I found the ending with the chain gang unsatisfactory. I wish she had stopped the story one page sooner. And too much has, in my view, been made of ‘the battle of the sexes.’ Miss Amelia fights Marvin Macy out of hate and desperation, not because she wants to prove that women are stronger than men.

The book contains six short stories as well as the eponymous novella. They are well-written but do not come close to the standard of the major work here.

The Ballad of the Sad Café is one of the best stories I have read all year. Please, people, throw out more like this!

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