Tag Archives: Short Stories

To the Volcano by Elleke Boehmer: Stories of longing and loneliness

Cover imageI’d not heard of Elleke Boehmer before To the Volcano turned up, despite the five novels she has under her belt. She’s also the author of an acclaimed biography of Nelson Mandela not to mention editor of the bestselling 2004 edition of Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys. I knew about the latter from Waterstone’s Books Quarterly days but had failed to make the connection. Now an Oxford academic, Boehmer was born in South Africa which explains why so many of her stories emanate from the southern hemisphere.

The opening piece sets the tone for much of this collection with a tale of homesickness in which a young African student’s infectious laugh gradually fades away in an unwelcoming ancient British university town. Lise’s dream of visiting Paris, her backpack stuffed with French classics to guide her, is dulled by rain and unwanted attention which sends her thoughts heading for home in ‘South, North’ while ‘Evelina’, one of my favourites, sees a young Argentinian travel guide, due to join her fiancé in New York, lingering in the airport until the last minute, reluctant to board the plane. Closely linked to the yearning for home, ‘Supermarket Love’ is a tale of cultural confusion as a young Afghan Muslim shelf-stacker writes a letter in her head to an Australian agony aunt about her crush on a colleague, knowing she can never send it. ‘Synthetic Orange’ also calls to mind refugees when the gift of a bracelet made from the brightly coloured vests worn by migrants brings back memories of two shocking events for a woman on holiday in Spain.

Many of Boehmer’s stories are about people at a decisive point in their lives, a time to turn backwards or forwards, but several explore ageing a particularly poignant example of which is ‘Paper Planes’ in which an old woman sits in her nursing home bedroom playing with her grandson, or rather watching him play. ‘The Mood I’m In’ takes a rather different view of growing old as a widow, dry-eyed at her previous husbands’ funerals, finds herself in tears at the fourth.

These are insightful, intelligent stories full of characters pursuing their dreams but often meeting with disappointment, unable to make a decisive move, pulled back by a longing for home or an inability to escape their past and often left lonely as a result. An enjoyable collection, written with a quietly perceptive insight.

Myriad Editions: Oxford 9781912408245 177 pages Paperback

Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano (transl. Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis): Interconnected lives

Cover imageI’m sure I’ve already made this observation here but I’ve yet to read a dud from Peirene Press. Their books are always thought-provoking and often beautifully expressed, a tribute to both writer and translator, or in this case translators. Clearly, Meike Ziervogel has a very discerning editorial eye and her own writing is quite remarkable, too: Flotsam is one of this year’s favourite books for me. Emmanuelle Pagano’s interconnected set of brief short stories, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue, is the last in Peirene’s Here Be Monsters series, exploring the lives of those who live a little outside society.

We can’t know ourselves, only catch hold of words and images in other people’s minds to try to see more clearly inside ourselves

The inhabitants of a French village, high up in the mountains, are no different from anyone else in that they have memories, families, friends, lives marked by the usual sadnesses and occasional outbreaks of joy, but some have suffered more than others. Every afternoon, a man stands on the bend of the road where his family was killed, as if to turn back time, then the road is diverted leaving him truly lost. A man is shamed by the childhood joke whose cruelty still lingers in the lives of the two women who were its victims. A hitchhiker finds himself picked up by a taciturn woman whose driving is so dangerous she seems intent on killing them both. A woman remembers the cousin she so closely resembled they were often mistaken for each other, convinced that her cousin committed suicide, while another thinks of the therapist obsessed with the fox she put out of its misery as a child shortly after her parents separated. These stories and many more are bookended with the childhood memories of a woman happy to read alone while listening to her cousins play and the reflections of another who discovers there’s much to learn about her fellow readers from her library loans.

When I borrow books, I take with me glimpses of their daily goings-on, all the little doings that fill our own stories and mingle with those in the books, sometimes to the extent of leaving their marks on the pages, the inside things and the outside things.

Pagano’s stories offer snapshots of the villagers’ lives through their memories and anecdotes. Many of her characters are alone or on the fringes of society. Their stories are often sad – suicide, grief and loss are frequent – but there’s also tolerance, gentle humour and small kindnesses. Each is told in the character’s own, distinct voice, unfolding their lives in simple yet striking descriptions:

This man, this man was a sort of landmark in the landscape, a silhouette of waiting, a man-comma who told us, with his hunched body, we’re here, at a particular place, it’s five o’clock.

Small details accrue, each one carefully stitched in until a vivid picture of a community emerges. Beautifully executed, it’s another Peirene triumph.

Peirene Press: London 2019 9781908670540 124 pages Paperback

Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg: Six little gems

Cover imageHard not to be intrigued by a collection of short stories with a title like Your Duck is My Duck not to mention that cover. On closer inspection, Deborah Eisenberg turned out to be garlanded with praise from all manner of people, including a New York Times critic who described her work as ‘Shudderingly intimate and mordantly funny’ which clinched the deal for me. Her collection comprises six stories, each lengthy enough to deserve a brief synopsis of its own.

Your Duck is My Duck – Taken up by an uber rich couple she meets at a party, an artist is invited to their retreat in a small village they’ve ruined with their ill thought out schemes. She arrives to find her hosts at war with each other, oblivious to the havoc they’ve wreaked.

Taj Mahal – A group of aged movie actors are affronted by the biography of a renowned director written by his grandson, purportedly drawing on his childhood memories, but are their own as reliable as they’d like to think?

Cross Off and Move On – The death of a long lost cousin brings back memories of her irascible mother’s dislike of her father’s sisters for a middle-aged woman who remembers her aunts as nothing but kind and generous. Her own origins were a jigsaw for her to piece together, thanks to her mother’s determination to hide them.

Merge – The over-indulged Keith has been cut off from his father’s largesse and faced with real life when he meets Celeste who finds him something to do: looking out for her ageing neighbour and walking the fluffball known as Moppet. Cordis has a fascinating story if only Keith can get her to tell it. Meanwhile, a long way from home Celeste seems to be unravelling.

The Third Tower – A young woman undergoing neurological tests, finds it politic to take her cue from her consultant rather than describe what’s really in her mind.

Recalculating – Intrigued by the uncle he never met, Adam flies across the Atlantic to attend his memorial service, surprised by the elegance and sophistication of his uncle’s bohemian friends who are pleased to recognise Phillip in him

Each of these stories was a delight for me, stuffed full with acerbic observation. Several of them are darkly comic: Merge’s prefacing with two quotes, one from Noam Chomsky, the other from Donald Trump, made me laugh out loud. Eisenberg’s characters are astutely drawn and her themes – memory, ageing, family and language – intelligently explored. Her punctuation maybe a little over enthusiastic for some – commas popping up all over the place but I’m not entirely averse to that. Her stories are carefully constructed and she’s not afraid to challenge her readers – in Merge two narrative strands tease themselves apart, seeming to unravel which is a little discombobulating but strikingly effective, while The Third Tower is almost hallucinogenic in its images. As seems to be so often the case with short stories for me, it’s the writing that I most enjoyed. Here are a few choice samples:

Pretending to be other people is fine. It’s pretending to be oneself that’s exhausting. Taj Mahal

They would sit down at the bar, Mr Perfect and the girl, and the predictable theatrics would start right up, so the moment he appeared I’d resign myself to a night watching a wallet flirt with a price tag. Cross Off and Move On

Friedlander dabbled in a series of eccentric, quasi-scholarly enterprises, as only the useless child of a wealthy family can. Merge

The sights stream by out the window, wavering, not quite solid, like pictures unfurling on a bolt of printed silk. The Third Tower

It’s like a word has the same word inside it, but the one inside’s a lot bigger, and with better colours and more parts. The Third Tower

There, I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Europa Editions: London 2019 9781787701823 219 pages Paperback

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (Various translators): Stories with personality

I’d scored one Israeli success this year with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar when Etgar Keret’s short stories, Fly Already, turned up, looking like another. Made up of twenty pieces, some no longer than a page or two, Keret’s idiosyncratic collection is both funny and poignant, counterbalancing comedy with a sharp observation of human nature.

It begins with a characteristic bang as a father tries to persuade a potential suicide from jumping while his five-year-old son cheers the ‘superhero’ on in the eponymous story. In another, a lowly circus worker gets a liking for being shot out of a cannon but how long can it last? Vengeance proves not to be as sweet as anticipated in ‘Tabula Rasa’, one of the longer pieces, which sees a group of children, afflicted with a rare genetic condition, brought up in an institution, each with their own secret donor or so they believe but the truth is very different. The narrator of ‘Car Concentrate’ uses the crushed Mustang in his living room as a talking point but gradually we learn he’s not as slick as he seems while the car hides a very dark secret.

Several of the stories have more than a touch of the surreal. Nocturnal worries give way to fantastical humour in ‘At Night’. Hard not to love a story that opens ‘Stella, Ella and I were almost ten years old the day Dad shape-shifted.’ Some are sinister – ‘Arctic Lizard’ is narrated by a child soldier in a Trumpian third-term dystopia – while others are playful – ‘Ladder’ begins with an angel’s performance review in which Raphael, dissatisfied by Zvi’s inability to project serenity, hints at a transfer downstairs. Just one piece, made up of emails interspersed with other stories, jarred a little for me and even that ended with a surreal surprise which made me laugh out loud.

These are brief, punchy stories, inventive and confident. Some of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. If this collection’s anything to go by it’s richly deserved.

Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner: A smartly turned out collection

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Chloe Turner’s debut collection by its cover. Such a lovely pared back image and once you’ve read what’s inside, you’ll find it’s entirely relevant, too. Witches Sail in Eggshells comprises seventeen short pieces – some just a couple of pages, others stretching over ten – all as smartly turned out as that jacket.

There’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ flavour to the opening story, ‘The Hagstone’, in which a pebble brought home by Leda’s sister enlivens her collection with sinister results. It’s hard to say whose behaviour is the worst in the lengthy ‘Piñata’, or perhaps the children are simply taking after their parents at eight-year-old Marlie’s birthday party. Shorter and more taut, ‘Inches Apart’ sees a woman whose marriage has dwindled, wondering if she’ll choose to see the evidence of her partner’s infidelity while in ‘Labour of Love’ – one of my favourites – a gardener finds first joy then surprising comfort in working her vegetable patch.

Many of Turner’s stories are about relationships – with partners, exs and partners of exs, rivals and even old schoolmates – some with disturbing undercurrents. ‘Show Me What You’re Made Of ‘ is a chilling, almost gothic, exploration of domestic violence and coercion while a thread of tension runs through ‘Collecting Her Thoughts on the Prison Steps’ as we wonder how things will end for a woman caught up in a controlling relationship. More cheeringly, a woman is brought face to face with one of her ex’s lovers when their sons become friends and is surprised at how she feels in ‘Waiting for the Runners’.

Grief, ageing, love and quiet heartbreak are also constants. There’s a lovely wistful tone to ‘The Day You Asked Me’ in which an old woman remembers the first time her childhood sweetheart asked her out on his boat, charting their lives until he asks again decades later. In ‘On Old Stones, Old Bones and Love ‘a glimpse of a young couple in love and her husband’s kindness in a crisis reminds an ageing woman of the passion and adventure they once shared.

All this is delivered in nicely polished, insightful prose:

As she knelt, loose stones made themselves comfortable in the soft tissue of her knees. (Labour of Love)

The stalk was furring like a baby rabbit’s pelt, and the smirking mouth was starting to pucker down at the edges, but I still felt it was laughing at me. (Waiting for the Runners)

It was late springtime when you asked me for the first time. The sun was young in the sky, untroubled by cloud, and there were jellyfish everywhere, shrugging and sagging their way through the pea green. (The Day You Asked Me)

Though there is something sad about her, a drooping wilt to her tall frame as if her roots might be too shallow. (The House with Three Stories That Might Be Five)

Dogs barked at them, and the octopuses would wave a tentacle back in disdain. (A Raft of Silver Corpses)

A book that lives up to its fetching cover, then, but you don’t have to take my word for that: Reflex Press have cleverly put ‘The Hagstone’ on their website for you to read.

Lot by Bryan Washington: No place like home

Cover imageBryan Washington’s Lot comes garlanded with praise from all manner of people not least Max Porter, whose own writing has caught the eye of a multitude of reviewers, but it was Jami Attenberg’s description of it as her ‘favourite fiction debut of the year’ which piqued my interest. Billed as a collection of short stories, Washington’s book comprises thirteen pieces – some snapshots, others much longer – all firmly rooted in Houston, Texas. That said, for me it read like a fragmentary novella through which runs the story of a narrator whose name we finally learn in the book’s last section.

The son of a black mother and a Latino father grows up in a rundown Houston neighbourhood where his family scrapes a living running a restaurant. Our narrator discovers a liking for boys while his brother entertains an endless parade of women and their sister works hard at finding a way out. Their father eventually leaves, packing his bags after a long string of nights with his lover, then our narrator’s brother joins the army after one too many skirmishes and his sister marries a white man. Finally, his mother goes home to Louisiana leaving him alone, faced with the question what’s keeping him and finding a surprising answer. Threaded through these episodes are stories of others who share the city: a beautiful woman whose affair with a white man ends in tragedy when the local gossips reveal it; two sushi restaurant workers who think they’ve found a way to make their fortune with a strange creature found abandoned; a young man’s john becomes his lover offering kindness he can hardly believe. These thirteen pieces are woven together to form a tapestry of life in a city full to bursting with diversity.

East End in the evening is a bottle of noise, with the strays scaling the fences and the viejos garbling on porches, and their wives talking shit in their kitchens on Wayland, sucking up all the air, swallowing everyone’s voices whole, bubbling under the bass booming halfway down Dowling  

The sense of place in Lot is so strong you can almost see, smell, taste and hear it. There are neighbourhoods where one of the smartest things a boy can do is get himself apprenticed to a well-connected savvy dealer, others where white boys who see themselves as cool live because they think it’s the real Houston while those with no choice are hoping for escape. Washington’s writing is striking: sometimes poetic, often raw, vibrant and immediate. Here’s a tiny sample of the many quotes I pulled out:

It was the house you shook your head at when you drove up the road  

My father was a handsome man. Wore his skin like a sunburnt peach  

We filled the corners with our silence. It leaked into the hallway. If you didn’t know us better you might call us content  

He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around  

These are stories which explore, sex, love, identity and the meaning of home with empathy and wit. They’re not always an easy read but the writing is so powerful sometimes it makes you stop to catch your breath.

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: An idiosyncratic collection

Cover imageI’d heard good things about Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time well before publication, not in a shouty in-your-face, can’t-get-away-from-it kind of way but enough to snag my attention. Then I spotted Jon McGregor’s and Sally Rooney’s comments, both clearly smitten with Flattery’s writing. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it but her collection certainly made an impression.

Show Them a Good Time comprises ten stories – some quite short, others lengthier and one which, at over ninety pages, is almost on its way to becoming a novella. ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ sees two young women, students in their final year, collaborate in writing a play staged for just one night before they find their way to the unemployment office. In ‘Not the End Yet’ a woman dates a series of unsatisfactory men in a basement restaurant as surly teenage waiters look on. ‘Parrot’ is about a stepmother who feels uneasy in her role, fielding phone calls from her stepson’s expensive Parisian school about his behaviour. In ‘You’re Going to Forget Who I Am Before I Forget Who You Are’ a children’s author on tour talks to her pregnant sister who’s troubled by her sudden inability to make small talk. Then her memory dims further. ‘Track’ sees a young woman fleeing depression, falling into an affair with a comedian whose career is in decline, his only solace the laughing track his mother gave him. These are my favourites in a collection which explores relationships, gender roles and trying to find a place for yourself in the world.

Flattery’s stories are hard to do justice to in a few lines. Puzzling, sometimes disconcerting and a little off the wall, they’re oddly captivating, both funny and sad. All are written from the perspective of young women: men tend to appear as bit-parts, often not very flattering ones. Flattery’s tone is sardonic and a little subversive. Her female characters are cleverly observed, vivid despite their feelings of not fitting into the world. Lucy and Natasha in ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ reminded me of the eponymous Paulina and Fran in their mismatched friendship. As is so often the case with short stories,  it was the writing that had me scribbling quotes right, left and centre. Here’s a smattering of favourite lines:

As the night progressed, the realisation invariably arrived that this man was not a package at all: he was an envelope, an envelope with a bill in it, an envelope she, quite frankly, wanted to put in a drawer and forget all about (Not the End Yet)

Her mind felt like a long trailer carrying a number of cars; if one car went they would all go, scatter across the motorway, cause carnage.  (Abortion, A Love Story)

Athough she was alone, she didn’t feel alone, she felt like a part of a large pantomime dragon made-up of other women, a long line of them, moving and swaying invisibly through the city. (Abortion, A Love Story)

This was the end of her first relationship and she was determined to enjoy it. (Abortion, A Love Story)

We were both long acquainted with disappointment and the joys of being used (Show Them a Good Time)

She moved up and down the staircase, cheapening the place with the cut of her clothes, searching for her soul at a frantic pace that suggested she was rummaging through a demolition site for the remains of her belongings rather than spending a pleasant few hours in a museum (Parrot)

She had been a bit tired when she entered art college, but dropping out exhausted her (Parrot)

I’ll leave you with one final quote from ‘Abortion, A Love Story:

‘I’m not sure,’ Lucy said, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know if I get it’

I’m not sure I do, either, but it was fun trying.

The Wooden Hill by Jamie Guiney: Stairway to heaven?

Cover imageJamie Guiney’s collection first caught my eye at What Cathy Read Next. It was its striking jacket that snagged my attention, perfectly fitting its theme with four figures of different ages making their way up a staircase towards a halo although several of Guiney’s characters are more likely to be travelling downwards towards a rather different destination. Comprising eighteen stories – some lengthy, others just a few pages – Guiney’s brief collection offers snapshots of life’s different stages, from an early arrival to a much mourned end.

The Wooden Hill opens with a father remembering his daughter’s happily anticipated birth in ‘We Knew You Before You Were Born’. ‘Summer Stories’ captures the dogged determination of a six-year-old intent on accumulating a collection of carefully selected stones, rudely interrupted by kindly adult concern while in ‘Peas’, a young boy waits for Santa on Christmas Eve only a little disconcerted by what he’s overheard through his older brothers’ bedroom door.  ‘The Cowboy’ sees a bout of scrumping launch a boy into a lifetime of dishonesty and in ‘A Woman Named Celie’ the antics of a dog provide distraction at his master’s funeral to the relief of the congregation and the disgust of the priest. A veteran pins his medal to his new Harris Tweed suit and marches smartly through his village, the sounds of long ago battle in his head in ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’ as the collection approaches its end.

Guiney has chosen a very appealing theme for his collection whose tone is often engagingly intimate. There’s a healthy streak of humour running through these stories, some of it a little slapstick – the pipe-smoking dog was an amusing if surreal turn – some of it dark. His characters are well drawn but it’s his writing that I found most impressive: clean and plain yet often poetic in its descriptions. Here are a few favourite quotes:

But we knew you before you were born. Felt this powerful connection from our hearts to yours, like an invisible spindle of silk

Out in the barley, you catch the flicker of a giant stork lifting off, the majesty of its spread wings pushing off against the blue

It is like winter has crawled inside me and decided to rest out the other three seasons

She’d watch his rugby matches every weekend and hug him as he came off the field no matter how wet or muddy or sometimes even bloody he was. Now he did nothing and his body had sagged like a baked apple

I stand beside Dad. As we sing the hymn, his body shakes. Trying with all its might to cry. Trying with all its might not to cry

Altogether an enjoyable collection, both eloquent and moving in its portrayal of the human condition.

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore: An unexpected, very welcome treat

Cover imageIn his touching Foreword to Girl, Balancing and Other Stories, Helen Dunmore’s son, Patrick Charnley, tells us that she had discussed with him the possibility of a collection of short stories to be published after her death. Charnley mined his mother’s papers and laptop, gathering together thirty-three pieces written in the two decades since Dunmore’s last collection was published. Demonstrating the empathy that characterised so much of his mother’s work, Charnley tells us that the family’s delight in what he found is one of our reasons for publishing the collection, to share this work with Mum’ s readers, many of whom, too, must feel that their enjoyment of Mum’s writing has been cut short.

The first of the collection’s three sections, The Nina Stories, is made up of three linked pieces beginning with the comfort of warm olive oil in a sore ear and ending with an assertion of a young woman’s independence in the face of danger.

The Present starts with the teasing humour of ‘Taken in the Shadows’ in which the narrator contemplates John Donne’s portrait, the object of many a fifteen-year-old’s desire, imagining his ankle itching as he sits for it before recounting the miseries of a life spent in poverty. Three favourites from this section for me include ‘All Those Personal Survival Medals’ which turns a burning childhood humiliation into a life-saving triumph, ‘A Night Out’ in which two women, prematurely widowed, find unexpected friendship and the poignant ‘Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons’ in which a young girl is faced with the result of her family’s dismissive perception of her aunt.

The Past takes us from the wartime passion of ‘Rose, 44’ which sees a young woman’s hopes for her black American lover violently quashed to ‘With Shackleton’ in which a woman inwardly rails against her mother-in-law’s pride as she misses her husband, off on an expedition soon after her miscarriage to ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’ in which Dunmore has fun with Jane Eyre, throwing a very different light on Rochester and his daughter’s governess.

Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world are all adroitly explored. Several are set in Bristol where Dunmore had lived and worked for many years: ‘A View from the Observatory’ which recalls an illicit moonlit visit to the camera obscura on the Downs is a particular delight with its air of menace, deftly handled in Dunmore’s characteristic style. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words: in ‘Duty Free’ a woman reflects on the youth of the soldiers passing through on their way to Afghanistan but with characteristic restraint Dunmore makes no mention of what may happen to them. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are a multitude of lines I could have quoted but here are a few which seem to me to capture Dunmore’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation:

There were lots of drawings of a bare man who looked as if he didn’t know he hadn’t got any clothes on thinks an eleven-year-old at an exhibition

Our students like modules which demand opinions rather than extensive reading an academic wryly observes

I would stare down to see if my badness was flickering away across the dust like a snake remembers a woman of her childhood beating

They were offering smiles now, and Christmas greetings, as if they were all survivors of a wreck and had been hauled up on to the same raft expresses the relief of family Christmases almost over

I’m driving in the dark. There’s not another car in sight. I haven’t seen one for miles. Only my own headlights, brushing the loneliness

Even if a woman has always coloured her hair, she won’t be able to fool anyone after her death 

There’s not one dud in this collection. I’m sure Dunmore’s many fans will be as grateful to her family as I am for sharing this final, unexpected treat.