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Short Story Club, 22nd September: Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld

Review by Susan Hodgetts

This month’s short story was bound to provoke intense discussion and divisive feeling among the short story club attendees. In Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld, the Canadian born writer Alison MacLeod imagines a happy ending for the late poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963.

Taken from her short story collection All the Beloved Ghosts, MacLeod offers us a mythical and romantic “corrective” fantasy to Sylvia’s earthly life.

In the story, an anonymous narrator (who one might reasonably assume is MacLeod herself, from references to shared Americanisms) visits Plath’s grave in Heptonstall, Yorkshire. The narrator then conjures up a supernatural conversation by holding a wine glass to the poet’s headstone.

The narrator learns that Sylvia’s wearing the pink dress she wore on her wedding day to Ted Hughes, and that they’re happily travelling the River Styx to their final destination.

Several of the short story club’s participants had issues with Plath’s story being viewed through the lens of a “romantic myth”; the subject of Ted Hughes’s infidelity inevitably reared its head, and some questioned if she’d have wanted a reunion with him anyway?

I felt a desire from MacLeod to communicate with Sylvia and understand her, perhaps an almost sisterly desire to alleviate her pain.

One thing that most agreed on was that the piece contained some beautiful passages of writing, including the use of imagery reminiscent of Plath’s poetry: “The foxgloves rise, their pink mouths electric with bees.”

A real-life subject is always a difficult challenge for a writer – readers will have their own perspectives on that famous person’s life. MacLeod has chosen to present a fantastical viewpoint, which I found rather beautiful.

She has also tried to steer clear of judgements or controversy, making this between just her and Sylvia, for whom the narrator feels some empathy: “I hold the rim of the glass to my ear, as if I were listening to our crashing Atlantic…” and “Like you, I learned how to be less vivid.”

MacLeod requires the reader to collude in the writer’s fantasy, in a light-hearted, over-romanticised romp – and of course that choice is ultimately the readers’.

There is one limitation on the accessibility of this piece – it potentially requires some knowledge of Plath to gain the most from it, meaning that some may find the story unapproachable.

Susan Hodgetts graduated with an MA in Writing for Performance from Goldsmiths University. Her short plays have been performed at RADA, Tristan Bates Theatre and Theatre 503 amongst others. Hr short story publications include: My City, City of Stories anthology (Spread the Word, 2017); How to Begin, Walter Swan Short Story Prize anthology 2018 (Valley Press); Blooming, Reflex Flash Fiction anthology (2019). Visit www.susanhodgetts.co.uk