The Essence of Life is a superb collection of stories in the rich tradition of Roald Dahl’s adult works.
These seven cunningly crafted works of fiction — loosely connected into a saga spanning decades — draw you into a fascinating fabric peopled with characters both comic and complex.
First is the story of Aurora — a simple but happy girl who grows up in the rambling Yelets orphanage in Eastern Russia, easily the tallest girl in the place.
“She was six-foot-five and eighteen years old when she shut the rusty, creaky orphanage gate behind herself.”
But it’s her puzzling situation in Scotland a few years later that will most interest readers. She is told that her job is to stay out in the verdant hills of a Scottish distillery’s landholding from dawn to dusk, wearing a dazzling fireflower-red dress, and midnight-blue Wellington boots with four pairs of thick socks.
She marries one of the owner’s sons — Adam — and, soon after their wedding night, he reveals the singular story of how one day he broke a hallowed family tradition and forever established the tiny distillery’s worldwide reputation for its exquisite Limited Edition Rettrey Old Garden Malt, priced at 350 dollars for a single bottle.
(Pay special attention to this part: it’s important.)
The remaining six stories bring a bit more depth to an ever-growing — and infinitely entertaining — plotline, with the birth of baby Marion to a Hungarian emigre and a woman who passes out in the back of his cab one cold night in Toronto.
The child receives a rude introduction into a world in which she learns to fight for everything she receives. The following perfectly turned phrase succinctly foreshadows Marion’s future:
“Marion was born on a cold winter’s day on the top floor of a Canadian hospital – into a marriage that had been doomed from the start.”
It is just this extraordinary gift for storytelling that carries the reader through tale after tale — each one building on the one before it, or bringing one suddenly face-to-face with a loose end tied up nicely with a literary bow.
We return to the Scottish distillery time and again, meeting such memorable players as Mary and Padriac, Leona and Charlie (reluctant heir to the family business). We also meet Kati neni and her seventy percent peach palinka (Hungarian moonshine), and a precocious child prodigy named Estella, who, though mute for much of her early life, cannot be shut up once started. Indeed, her contributions to this tale occasionally tread into the realm of theology.
During a discussion in church with a cousin, she expresses concern on where her dead uncle’s soul has gone. The cousin explains the matter succinctly:
“The angels help them with butterfly nets, so they don’t get lost.”
This excellent read is rife with delightfully quirky characters and never fails to surprise the reader with one unexpected plot turn after another.
For example, there’s the curious question near the end of the book as to why the distillery’s award-winning whiskey has suddenly changed its flavor overnight.
Again, pay close attention. It’s important.
Five-plus stars to The Essence of Life. It’s a fine addition to the other two books by author Rain Arlender: a title called simply “Y”, and its sequel: “Y2”.
Congratulations to Ms. Arlender for an absorbing and entertaining collection of quality fiction.