Why is it that reading a book by a British author, in that proper tone, can render any topic more auspicious? In Smut, Alan Bennett’s wry humor and clever asides carry the message, but you will be distracted by his language, and, as with The Uncommon Reader, Bennett turns perceptions upside down with humor and truth. Have a cup of tea and enjoy the book, but be careful that the surprises don’t have you snorting out your nose. Just remember, you were warned by the title.
This slender volume actually has two short stories – different respectable characters, same topic. In both, Bennett preserves the outer images of the prim and proper, while revealing their unexpected secrets.
In “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” a middle-aged widow, trying to supplement her income after her husband dies, decides to take in boarders from the local medical school, despite her daughter’s misgivings. Mrs. Donaldson also works part-time as a pseudo-patient for medical students. Her role-playing as a fake patient provides opportunities for Bennett’s crackling comments and funny scenes. But the exhibitionist activities of her tenants offers her unexpected enjoyment when she allows them to pay their overdue rent in an unconventional way. Alas, even the thrilling eventually becomes mundane.
In “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” a middle-aged mother is disappointed that her handsome son is marrying an unattractive woman. The son, trying to protect his mother from his secret life, becomes an unwitting victim of his gay police officer partner who blackmails him. He is rescued by his wife, who had only been pretending not to know of his proclivities – as does his mother – in a twisted tale of strange allegiances and misplaced trust.
Although witty and mocking, Smut is a strange commentary on lives that are more complicated than they seem. The British flavor lends some respectability to the bawdiness, and Bennett has a gay old-time in the telling.
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