A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Twenty – Odour of Chrysanthemums

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty – Odour of Chrysanthemums, by D.H. Lawrence

Read it online here:

Odour of Chrysanthemums

Odour of Chrysanthemums is a famous story – with a well-established position in the pantheon of great and famous short literature. But, somehow, I had never read it – or at least I didn’t remember reading it. And a story of this skill and emotional impact – I would have remembered it.

The first thing that struck me about this story is the language. The paragraphs are chock-a-block with unusual (at least for modern eyes), esoteric, and completely appropriate (even perfect) word choices.

gorse, footplate, coppice, spinney, whimsey, colliery, imperious mien, trundle, metals, winding-engine, steel fender, hob, crozzled… and so on.

I plowed through the first time (reading the story on my tablet in a coffee shop a short bicycle-ride from my house, drinking an iced Thai Milk Tea with boba) and only later, worked my way through with a dictionary website, learning the exact meaning of the words.

The second thing that fascinated me with the story is the description and sense of place. An English coal-mining town in all its filthy glory. What a difficult life. The wife with two children (and another on the way) waiting for her husband to come home from the mine – assuming he had bypassed dinner to go out drinking.

I assumed I was reading a piece of social commentary on the unfairness of life around the coal mines – and I suppose the story is. There is nothing in the text to dilute the clarity or sadness of the woman’s life and the impossible future her family faces.

One aspect of the story that I haven’t read about is the point that her husband suffocated. It was a slow death. If his wife hadn’t assumed he was out drinking and had alerted the other miners about his absence sooner, the end result might have been very different.

But, for all that, at the end, the story reveals its true heart, and its something else entirely. The title gives the first hint. Then there at the end, the wife is faced with her husband’s beautiful body and she realizes she never even knew him.

That is where the story really comes alive and where it has its strongest, unforgettable impact.

And there lies genius.