Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

"Lying in Bed" by Polly Samson (Virago, 1999)

In the first story, "Wasted Time", the narrator's a daughter of parents who sometimes argue. Her mother tells her about the facts of life. The lonely daughter often visits the graves of 3 children. She also counts the condoms in a tin in her parents' room, and is worried when they've not been used for a while. One day she finds a Jackdaw with a broken wing and brings it home. Her mother, in one of her rages, causes the bird's death. The daughter pierces 3 condoms, one for each child. I liked the punchline, the relative brevity of the story and the spare characterisation. It's my favorite perhaps because it's the first I read.

The second story's longer, and if you're the type of reader who tries to anticipate punchlines, you won't be surprised. The next story "The Right Girl for the Job" is longer still. By now I'd begun to seek clues in the titles. A single mother's interviewing for nannies. I soon realised that the mother's picking a pretty one as part of a plan to make life difficult for her ex-husband and his young mistress. The punchline is a twist on this - if it was foreshadowed it's too subtle for me.

"Blood Roses in the Snow" begins with a policeman and social worker at the narrator's door. He's come to take the baby away. Was the baby being mistreated? Handicapped? Is it in fact a doll? Has it replaced a still-born that's rotting somewhere? Who is the "other child" on p.139? We soon discover that the baby had simply been snatched and the husband had left rather than spill the beans. There's not much to the story after that.

But the endings aren't always predictable. I thought at the end of "Turkish Carpets" that Robert would be revealed as a father. In "Subterfuge" I thought the brother was gay. I was wrong both times.

There's a lot of detail. Flashbacks are often long and uninterrupted. "Mermaid's Purse" is in the present tense with time-gaps between some paragraphs. It works well, though in a restaurant we're suddenly dropped into a waiter's head for a paragraph (p.107). Language can become a little wayward too - little girls think things like "warming my cold heart against the heat of their impatience" (p.63) or "that was as ice compared to the hot spurts of hatred that followed" (p.78). Words aren't at a premium - e.g the last word's not needed in "'Good heavens, why do you ask that?' said Emily, surprised" (p.122).

Susan Hill said "Stunning, wholly original". I don't think so. They're neatly written stories and often a pleasant, undemanding read.

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