Love and loneliness prevail in the latest short stories

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

31 March 2018

9:00 AM

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection Her Body & Other Parties (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99) takes a confident straddle across speculative fiction, erotica, fable and horror. In these electric stories, the author explores the challenges and promises of women’s bodies with forceful verve.

In ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, a mysterious illness makes women gradually fade away; many of them ask a seamstress to stitch their disappearing bodies into the fabric of dresses. In ‘The Husband Stitch’, a woman gives herself completely to her husband and son, insisting only that they never touch the ribbon she always wears around her neck. When this tiny privacy is not permitted, we see just how much unravels. ‘Eight Bites’ shows a large woman following her sisters in undergoing bariatric surgery to curb her appetite: ‘They ordered large meals and then said, “I couldn’t possibly”… that bashful lie had been converted into truth vis-à-vis a medical procedure.’ Although the collection is a little uneven, the best of these stories — with resonant imaginative worlds and intelligent riffs on a woman’s place — are spellbinding.

In The Reservoir Tapes (Fourth Estate, £9.99) Jon McGregor returns to the Peak District village of his Booker-longlisted novel Reservoir 13. Both books revolve around the unexplained disappearance of 13-year-old Becky Shaw, which the author uses as a peg to reveal the intricate goings on of village life, thick with secrets. The first of these stories, ‘Charlotte’, is a feat — an interview redacted so that only the interviewer’s words are given. Charlotte is the missing girl’s mother, and her mute discomfort is conjured as the interviewer puts words into her mouth in this ‘chance for you to put your side of the story’. The other stories are told in McGregor’s skilful focalised third person, each one centred on a different character. As in Reservoir 13, all the ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’ jostle each other to show the disparity in voices and perspectives.

Here, the character studies are more immediate than the slow, brooding accumulation of Reservoir 13, yielding a heightened feeling of threat. While much is revealed in these stories — not least, we get to see Becky alive and wild on the page — McGregor manages to leave us none the wiser about her fate, skilfully continuing his experiment of promising a solution, while bringing us no closer to one. For any fan of Reservoir 13, these stories (originally broadcast on Radio 4) are a treat, but The Reservoir Tapes also stands alone as a masterful piece of writing: an assured study of character, voice and village life.

Many of the stories in Vesna Main’s debut collection, Temptation: A User’s Guide (Salt, £9.99), take place in the homes of her characters; the wide range of these situations shows just how much the domestic can encompass. We visit a bibliophile whose obsession with buying books eventually entombs him; a lonely woman who ‘bakes for no one’; a prostitute who keeps a beer in her refrigerator for her favourite client; and a dinner party that echoes Mrs Dalloway. Often there is a weighing up of solitude versus company.

In ‘My Friend Karl’, Karl dexterously juggles a partner and a lover, but goes to great lengths to ensure they take holidays at the same time, so he has some ‘free time’. In ‘Telling Tales’, a former ‘party animal’, newly separated from her husband, seeks solitude in renting a house in a remote French hamlet, only to find herself taking in a stray man, who arrives in mysterious circumstances. The epigraph from Alberto Manguel’s All Men Are Liars — ‘It is strange that no reader ever understood that my only subject is love’ — underlines the collection’s central preoccupation. In these beautifully observed stories, Main deftly explores love’s myriad forms.

Letti Park is an understated, haunting collection by the German writer Judith Herman (Serpent’s Tail, £10). The stories are short and quiet, often reflecting on memory and the passage of time. In the first story, ‘Coal’, a group of people are shovelling a large coal delivery into a barn, when a little boy comes along on his bicycle and stays to help. His appearance pivots the story into the group’s memories of his mother, who died a year earlier, after his father left: ‘She had locked herself inside herself out of love. It was odd to think that this would govern Vincent’s entire life, and we took the coal from his little dirty hands like holy wafers.’

In ‘Solaris’, Sophia and Ada lived together as students; years later, Ada — now married with two children and living in another city — comes to stay with Sophia and finds so many ‘traces of their former life together’ that she lies down on the sofa, ‘so calm that she feels as if she were dissolving, almost forgetting, who she is.’. In ‘Paper Airplanes’, a mother of two children interviews for a job and reflects:

Sometimes I think I’d like to take everything apart and put it together again. Not to start all over again from scratch, that’s not what I mean. But doing something else with what’s there? Ah, well, that just wouldn’t work. Look at Sammy and Luke. I don’t think I can go back again.

The wistful atmosphere of these stories condenses into such moments, like bullets wrapped in cotton wool.

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