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Scent of Cinnamon and other stories

Charles Lambert

… Spender reached over and brushed Andrew’s fringe off his face, then rested his hand on the side of Andrew’s head, over his ear, his fingers curled round towards the neck in a sort of cradle. Andrew pushed his head harder against the man’s hand, the way a dog butts into its owner’s palm. When Spender removed his hand, Andrew’s skin felt hot.
`We never know where we might be useful,’ Spender said.

Reviewed by Moira Crone

Charles Lambert can keep a secret—so, I will keep one of his. The title story of this varied, rich collection is such a marvel of narrative discipline it would be a sin to give away its final surprise. Winner of the O. Henry Award in 2007, the story exhibits a master’s touch, and blends fairy tale and realism. Isak Dinesen’s classics come to mind. It’s a mail order bride story about affection that meets obstacles on the earthly plain. Another love song in the collection, Something Rich and Strange, also concerns a deep attraction in conflict with fate   an unconsummated relationship between two men during World War II. The breadth and generosity of vision in those two tales made them my favorites. But it was hard to chose, for there are many wonders here. 

On the surface, Lambert writes several kinds of stories. In addition to the ballads set in the past described above, he gives us allegories where setting is minimal ( The Growing, the Number Worm), as well are contemporary tales about bad actors pushing the boundaries—sexual, legal, academic, bureaucratic— in Italy where Lambert himself lives and works as an teacher and translator, and also in Great Britain. ( In this category are Little Potato, Little Pea, Nipples, Damages, Moving the Needle Towards the Thread, Toad.) There are stories about difficult middle class families in the U.K. in the sixties, told from a child’s point of view (Beacons, All Gone.) Works set in several eras and locales explore gay themes. 

The pieces vary greatly in style and subject, but they all share a constant: Lambert’s impressive command of point of view. He almost always tells two tales at once. The overt rendition of events is slowly undermined by a covert reality, an under-story. Keeping his secrets as long as he can, he usually ends with a quiet flourish. He stops at that moment when the last element comes completely out of hiding, just before the true depth or potential is glimpsed. 

This technique appears in every type of work he writes. In the stark, haunting, historical Soap, a family maid’s ignorance and innocence are stripped away by increments so that we see the horror she’s been supporting her whole life. In a moment at the end of the fable, Growing, a young girl’s understanding of the masked people her father has brought her to meet is challenged. In the end of the realistic Beacons, we realize that the painful, arresting opening scene where an injured mother begs her children’s help does not introduce a tale of their mother’s healing, as it seems at first. Actually, we are reading a graver testimony altogether. 

The gripping Moving the Needle Towards the Thread, begins with a young woman’s dispassionate report of the aftermath of a murder she’s just committed, and her reasons. As the story comes to a close, her self-justifying tone begins to collapse, however. The title story is by no means what it appears to be we aren’t aware of the true import of events until the last few pages. 

Of course the surprising ending is an old staple in short fiction—where would stories be without ironies of expectation? The craft is in the execution. In every one of the pieces mentioned above, the delivery never feels like a trick. The ultimate moments are always earned. Lambert is so good we want to like all his characters as much as we do his lovers, but Janice in Little Potato, Little Pea, and others in that story, seem to deserve better than their final fates. Though it was clear he meant them as caricatures, they were so perfect and so strange, I wanted to like them more. A picaresque, Little Potato exhibits Lambert’s gift for humor, and is a standout in the collection. His analysis of Italian university politics is charming, funny, and damning. 

Though his strongest theme is love that transcends, all of his tales carry us to new levels –sometimes heights, sometimes depths--- as they uncover secrets that have been lying in wait throughout, just outside our original, usually conventional, conceptions. Lambert’s steady genius is his technique. As his stories close, you can almost hear a magician’s, “voila.”

Read one of the stories from this collection in the Richmond Review.

Author of a novel and three collections, Moira Crone most recent book is What Gets Into Us. Her works have appeared in a dozen anthologies and in The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Image, TriQuarterly, and others. The 2009 recipient of the Robert Penn Warren Award from the Southern Fellowship of Writers, as well as numerous fellowships and prizes, she lives in New Orleans, and teaches writing at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.She can be reached at moiracrone@aol.com

PublisherSalt Publishing

Publication Date: Oct 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?Yes

Awards: Title story, Scent of Cinnamon, Winner, 2007 O. Henry Award

Author bio: Charles Lambert was born in England in 1953, studied at Cambridge, and works as a translator and teacher in Italy. He has published one recent novel, from Picador, Little Monsters. 2007. Scent of Cinnamon is his first short story collection. 

Read an interview with Charles Lambert

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