One of the best commercial novels I read last year was Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. It explores the idea that our lives are shaped by chance and random acts as much as by the choices we make, following three possible lives for a couple who meet when they’re nineteen. I loved the idea and, for me, Barnett’s debut more than delivered the goods. Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection inhabits similar territory, niftily overturning apparent certainties, often in a series of small revelations and delivering the occasional killer punch.
The opening eponymous story sets the tone nicely as our panicky narrator watches several versions of her own life fly by while listening to the stories of a driver who seems more intent on telling them than keeping her eye on the road. With its many references to plot and character, ‘Used to Be’ read to me like a riff on writing and the many turns a story can take in a writer’s imagination. Ambiguity and misinterpretation abound in these stories. In ‘That Turbulent Stillness’ a passionate young woman, caught up in the idea of a romantic life with a handsome young man from the wrong side of the tracks, suddenly realises she doesn’t understand him at all. ‘Looking for the Castle’ sees a woman reluctantly revisiting her unhappy childhood only to find that her memory of it doesn’t quite match its reality while the strained relationship between two sisters has been stretched to breaking point by the secret one has kept from the other in ‘Clarrie and You’.
The second part of the collection kicks off with ‘Possibility’, an ambitiously structured story that switches between three very different passengers on a train, exploring the way each deals with the tragedy that befalls it. It’s a story that could easily have fallen on its face but each character’s distinctive voice coupled with the vivid immediacy of Baines’ writing carries it right through to its chilling conclusion. Endings are a bit of a feature of this second section: ‘Falling’ sees a young woman fall twice, each one changing her life, then a third time at which point Baines neatly pulls the rug from underneath her readers’ own feet; ‘The Choice Chamber’ follows two choices a young woman might have made only to have you puzzling over its ending which made me smile but which I’m still not sure about. As with its first, the collection’s final story, ‘Tides or How Stories Don’t Get Told’, strongly echoes the central theme as a woman reflects on her life thinking that her schooldays ‘can be a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir, depending on my mood’. There are several quotations I could have picked in which Baines neatly sums up her theme but here’s my favourite: ‘your life might go one way, or a completely different other’. Most of us like the idea of certainty – it makes us feel safe – but as this thoughtful collection reminds us there’s precious little of it in life, although sometimes – as in fiction – that makes it more interesting.
That’s it from me for a week. I’m off to Vienna later today where I will try not to eat too much cake but will probably fail.