Short Story Review – Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud – The Beautiful Coalwoman

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

The Beautiful Coalwoman is one of the longest stories in Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s A Life on Paper, and arguably also the least satisfying.  It is a story of anticipation – our anticipation – and the payoff, when it arrives, is slim.  The story layers mystery on mystery, and then ends abruptly with the death of the protagonist, with both his, and our, questions left unanswered.

The protagonist is a wandering knight.  He is far from home, and during the course of his long years he has participated in many a battle.  He seeks lodging in the house of an old peasant who, as they are swapping stories, tells him of the “coalwoman”, a woman who makes coal on a nearby island to sell to the villagers and other locals.  The old man remembers seeing her when he was young, and at that time she would have been little more than a child.  He says also that the description of her from others indicate that she is still extremely young, and beautiful.

The knight scoffs at these stories – how could she still be young after sixty years? – but he has travelled enough of the world to know that the extraordinary can often exist alongside ordinary, and that sometimes the stories are true.  He goes to investigate and, after some exploration of the island, finds (or, more accurately, is found by) a beautiful young woman, her face and body smudged with coal.

The knight stays on the island for many years, almost without realising that time is passing.  He never finds the woman, but is always found by her, and quite often when they are together they are together as man and wife – and yet he knows they are not.  She also has a habit of disappearing when the conversation touches on unpleasant topics, and very often she speaks in riddles.

The story continues, fleshing out the knight’s time on the island.  He talks with men who visit the island to buy coal.  He wanders.  He searches for the woman, but never finds her.  Finally, when he realises he is old, he attempts to leave the island, but instead dies after the island, which had been experiencing a pleasant autumn, turns suddenly to a vicious winter.  His last actions involve him discovering a cottage and, by the cottage, two enormous oak trees which he has never seen before.  And then he is dead, and the story ends.

But to what purpose?  The coalwoman remains a mystery.  She declares she does not love him, but she is willing to make the world a wasteland for him – and this seems to come to pass.  Gradually, there is no longer any indication of other people or settlements.  Gradually, the concept of time fades from the knight’s mind.  Things change but the impression is that of stasis.  Decay is rife, but so, too, is petrification.

The Beautiful Coalwoman takes a large amount of words to say very little.  It is unclear what, exactly, is happening between the coalwoman and the knight, but in a smaller story these mysteries are acceptable.  Such literary devices weaken when they are extended too long, which is certainly the case here.  Mysteries become frustrations, and intrigue turns stale, when they are stretched passed their welcome.  The story is fourteen pages where it should have been perhaps eight, and consequently the sensation of it, the metaphors used and the strength of the setting, feel flimsy and worn out.

Perhaps it’s me.  I have a strong distaste for knights, castles, mysterious peasant woman, and the like.  In a contemporary setting, such things appeal – but in medieval Europe?  For whatever reason, no.  I consider that an author generally relies too heavily on the readers sense of wonder for, and understanding of, the time period, and because of this can do away with character development, scene setting, or general atmosphere.  And that is what I think has happened here in The Beautiful Coalwoman, which, to me, depends upon my appreciation of the time period and its inherently mysterious nature (in terms of what is known to science and what is known to the unexplained forces).  I do not appreciate these things, and I want more than a wholly unexplained mystery from a lengthy story such as this.

Author Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
Title The Beautiful Coalwoman
Translator Edward Gauvin
Nationality French
Publisher Small Beer Press

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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