First published in 1988.
The title story is over 110 pages long. On p.4 we're straightforwardly given information - "This is where we live. There is David and myself, and there is Stephen who is my husband". David her son is ill. She is white. Huts are nearby, where people "are as odd as their dwellings, with their flat bony faces and shiny black skin" (p.6). Her servants are Salome and Moses. Only on p.9 do we learn of her mad mother. Her mother's problem might have been passed down to her, the doctor hints. Her life-style's not ideal -
- Stephen "does not get on with David. He loves him, I hasten to say - but this is perhaps the problem. Stephen doesn't know what to do with his love. He whittles it down to dry and brittle words." (p.23).
- "I am selfish. I am small. My life has devolved to numberless small routines that keep me safe." (p.33).
So, she has a dying child, an unhappy marriage, and a mad mother. Furthermore, she's a white in an isolated house where the surrounding countryside is rather hostile and communities of blacks are nearby. Surely the author has sufficient ingredients for a story by now. Or will it get worse?
The mother delays the boy's treatment for no given reason but eventually, suddenly takes him to a hospital that's a 5-hour drive away. The 2 of them stay there for a while. Nobody mentions cancer. If you're scared of big needles, there are passages you'll need to skip.
Things do get worse - the husband has an affair while she's away. There's a quick divorce. She gets the house. But the child recovers and she finds a lover who moves in. He beats the boy, then the woman, who neglects the son for a while but eventually, suddenly makes the man leave. Meanwhile the husband's relationship falls through. The now grown son leaves to live with his father. The woman ends up sharing the house with her mad mother.
The shifts of affection aren't depicted. All we see are the belated decisions by apparently heartless people (or people unable to express their thought before it's too late). And there are so many pivotal events that it's easy for the author to use under-statement. There's everything except a death.
"Lovers" begins with a brief deathbed scene - James watches his old father die while his mother knits in the lounge. Then there are a few pages of memories, how James preferred his quiet father to his organised, controlling mother. He lives in a flat. He's thinking of moving back to the house now. He tidies his father's study, looking for clues. He finds old love letters from a woman his father had an affair with. After a brief description of the funeral we read how he tries to track the lover down. Once he begins to imagine himself as his father, the ending's predictable.
"Shadows" - the narrator, a schoolboy, cycles at night with his only friend, Robert, who brings 2 dogs, to a lakeside where they can watch an eclipse. Robert's popular at school. As the moon fades, the narrator skinny-dips. Robert joins him. They tussle, innocently enough. The dogs provide symbolic accompaniment. They get dressed, the moon returns, and they cycle away. One imagines that the evening will mean more to the narrator than to Robert, whose mind is partly on Emma Brown.
"The Clay Ox" - a male hitch-hiker, Guy, is picked up by a woman in a white Volkswagon beetle. He'd been sleeping rough for a while. Then there's a flashback recounting his childhood - "I lived lived among green hills and like a hummingbird had craved the sweat of flowers ... Foot before foot, wrenching the prison of the tattered soul endlessly forward, one staggers across deserts to get away.". His stepfather sounds much like the mother's lover in the title story. The woman offers to share her tent with him. She recognises him from TV as a deserter. They go for a walk in the mountains. She's a terrorist, a suicide bomber who's going to blow up soldiers the next day. She invites him to come along, then hints that they should make love.
In "Rick", Shell's a lonely boy who's made fun of at school by his older, more sociable sister. His mother's another plate-thrower, his father another quiet man. His parents send him to boarding school because they think he's too introspective. There he meets Rick. Rick's never had a friend before. Though they're together a lot, Shell abuses Rick physically and mentally. When Shell returns to his family he's detached from them.
I liked "Lovers". It has the type of parents that the other stories have, and a long walk through nature (going in and out of forests seems popular). The main character's a bit of a loner, but not, as perhaps elsewhere, a repressed, gay adolescent. Though it starts with a death, it isn't propped up by a sequence of calamities each of which could fuel a whole story. And it's short