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The Means of Escape


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Penelope Fitzgerald was one of the most elegant and distinctive voices in British fiction. Three of her novels, The Bookshop, The Beginning of Spring and The Gate of Angels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She won the Prize in 1979 for Offshore. Her last novel, The Blue Flower, was the most admired novel of 1995, chosen no fewer than nineteen times in the press as the 'Book of the Year'. It won America's National Book Critics' Circle Award, and this helped to introduce her to a wider international readership. She died in April 2000, at the age of eighty-three.


Because the recently deceased Fitzgerald wrote gemlike little novels (e.g., The Blue Flower, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), intimate in focus and delicately rendered, one wonders what her shorter fiction would be like. Here, with her final work and first collection of stories, is the answer. From the young organist who unexpectedly helps an escaped convict in 19th-century England to the Greek boy who courts trouble as a doctor's apprentice, these beautifully rendered little pieces have an antique, slightly precious air, as if delivered to us from another time. They often feel like sketches, not fully fleshed out, but in each Fitzgerald manages to deliver an unexpected wallop; things just don't turn out as the reader expects. As the capstone of a remarkable, if only lately acknowledged career, this is recommended for most libraries.DBarbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

As if we needed further proof of Penelope Fitzgerald's greatness, the reviews on hardback publication of The Means of Escape were unfailingly superb, providing the literary pages with an opportunity to assess her career. 'Of all the novelists in English in the last quarter-century, she has the most inarguable claim on greatness. This is a small book, probably not above 25,000 words, but a remarkably rich one. It sets the seal on a career we, as readers, can only count ourselves lucky to have lived through.' Philip Hensher, Spectator 'So readable, so sharply tender, at the top of her form' Adam Mars-Jones, Observer 'As succinct, droll and individual as Fitzgerald has, over the years, given us every right to expect.' Sunday Times 'Luminous, dark, unflinching' Hermione Lee, TLS 'Eight masterpieces, polished and perfect, and with such mesmerising characters that each story is equal to any novel.' Polly Samson, Independent 'Books of the Year'

When a brilliant writer like Fitzgerald births her first work at age 60, her death at age 83 earlier this year seems sadly premature. This posthumous volume of eight short stories, none of them previously published here, is thus a signal event. Strange, whimsical, sometimes gothic or bizarre, these tales demonstrate Fitzgerald's cool and civilized wit and the merciless eye she casts on worldly pretensions. Many of the protagonists are eccentric, and in every story, something is askew: an individual is at odds with the everyday world. With settings ranging from England, Scotland and France to New Zealand and old Istanbul, and in historical period from the mid-19th century to the present day, each ends with a surprising twist. A story about the perseverance of rigid class values, "The Prescription," is a cautionary tale about a man of entrenched tradition who despises the outstanding individual achievement of someone of a "lower order." In several other tales, however, a self-satisfied character is undone by someone who appears powerless but manages to triumph. The title story, in which Fitzgerald's spare description blossoms in the mind's eye to create vivid scenes capturing the social milieu of 1852 Hobart, Tasmania, deals with a minister's virgin daughter, an escaped convict and an inscrutable servant who turns the tables. In most stories, the respectable social classesDupper and middleDare cold, "just" and supercilious. The poor are clever, resourceful and doomed to suffer. Crisp, with the economical suggestiveness of poetry, these stories will be treasured by Fitzgerald's readersDwho will, however, mourn the lack of information about their chronology. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

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