I was stunned to find two decades had passed since I’d read Personal Velocity, Rebecca Miller’s first collection. Time does funny things as you get older. Perhaps better known as a filmmaker, Miller adapted both her short stories and her equally enjoyable novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, for the screen. Comprising seven stories, Total explores similar themes to Personal Velocity, and does it just as strikingly. As ever, I’ve picked out my favourites.
One by one, with amazing efficiency, operating entirely by instinct, Joseph was removing the things that had made Justine believe in herself. And she allowed him to do this, allowed it like a person whose home is broken into and watches, silent and afraid, as all their valuables are taken
The collection opens with Mrs Covet in which Daphne’s mother-in-law sends help as, pregnant with her third child, Daphne struggles with the demands of her small sons but Nat becomes a little too fond of this appealing family with dramatic results. In I Want You to Know, Joad and Andrew’s blog documents the progress of their small organic farm, although the reality may be less idyllic than portrayed, then Joad finds a shocking piece of writing in a desk drawer and wonders if it might explain why the farm was so cheap, but perhaps not. She Came to Me sees a blocked writer meet a young woman recovering from an addiction to romance and finds he may have solved his problem albeit creating one for her. In The Chekovians, my absolute favourite, Alex comes home to marry the man she’s met while travelling to find her mother has invited the neighbours to a pre-wedding barbecue at their palatial beachfront home. Each family is very different from the other – one from new money made on the stock exchange, the other coming to the end of the family fortune – but they’re connected by a shared history: Alex’s paternal grandfather was once their neighbours’ gardener and it seems Alex’s father has a plan.
Occasional orchids, leaching their heady scent, perched on sills and shelves, their papery white blossoms atop long stems like pretty girls’ heads peering around to see who was watching them
Themes of motherhood, love, ageing and sexuality are explored in these stories, all but one of which are written from the perspective of women, several at crucial junctures in their lives. With its direct, intimate tone, Miller’s writing draws you into these women’s worlds. Her characters are compelling, sometimes a little eccentric, their worlds drawn in vivid colours. There’s a pleasing sly wit running through many of the stories which are peppered with striking, occasionally provocative images and sometimes end a little disconcertingly leaving the reader with much to think about. Altogether an enjoyable collection which left me hoping it wouldn’t be another two decades until the next one.
Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781838857257 192 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)