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.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

"Tales of Persuasion" by Philip Hensher (4th Estate, 2016)

No acknowledgements. Does that mean all these stories are previously unpublished?

In the first story the main, gay character, invites someone to share his flat though they've never met. "Timothy from Kenya" turned out to be a scheming white girl rather than a young, black boy. So instead he tries (with meek desperation) to seduce a neighbour's young man who's finally gullible to being flattered about his (actually limited) intelligence rather than his looks. The style reminds me a little of VS Pritchett's. Nothing much there for me. The second story, "A change in the weather", is about a first day at an office job. I'm wondering whether to bail out. "My Dog Ian" is better, though some sections seem unnecessarily long -

'We missed you,' Margaret said, sidling through the door with a clipboard.
'Oh, Christ,' I said. 'It was the - Christ, what was it?'
'The education and outreach committee's budget meeting,' she said. 'It's been in all our diaries for weeks.'
'I knew there was something,' I said.
'There was indeed,' she said. 'There was something, you're right there.'
'That's a catastrophe,' I said. 'I don't know how I could have forgotten it.' 'You'll get the minutes,' she said. 'Don't be hard on yourself.'
Of course she was right: people missed meetings all the time

The main character's invited to a strange, academic household -

I looked at his clothes, and at Natasha's, with compassion. They were the clothes of the children of theology professors the whole world over. 'I'm precocious. Do you know what that means?'
'I would say that being able to describe yourself as precocious at your age is a fair definition of it.'
'No,' Mark said. 'That's not really correct. That would be an instance of precocity, and not a definition of it.'

"The Midsummer Snowball" includes more smug children, this time with some bullying, which is where things get interesting. Before then however, there are many paragraphs to wade through. E.g. -

It was not like Miranda to start inviting people only an hour or two before she wanted to see them arrive. A Saturday-morning invitation for a Saturday-afternoon gathering at her pink-and-white house, the glass surfaces gleaming, her awed parents withdrawing from the sitting room, once they had arranged the mounded-up trays of refreshments about the place for their prodigious daughter that was unheard of. The smallest of Miranda's gatherings usually meant a week of giving and taking away invitations, as she played current favourites off against each other, holding out the possibility of an invitation, threatening another with exclusion. The pleasure of the party, for Miranda, was obviously in the anticipation. Once the guests had arrived, Miranda had no more power over them; they could only either leave or stay; and her parties, even her smallest gatherings, had a dissatisfied aspect that radiated from Miranda herself (p.100)

I like "In Time of War", perhaps because it has a more conventional shape. The main character, Fred, eventually discovers something about himself. After having spent years in London socialising with a little "posse" of gay friends, he gets sacked and announces to his posse that he's decided to wander around India.

'Of course,' he said, 'I'm not about to discover myself, or anything.'
They grinned at the idea that there was anything much of Fred to be discovered. Like the globe, by the beginning of the twenty-first century that terrain had been thoroughly gone over by all sorts of amateur explorers

In a quiet Indian hotel he's befriended by an English girl who's recently broken up with a man who loved her more than she loved him. Fred comes to realise how much he depended on his posse as a source of information about the world and as an audience. He tells her too late that he's gay. At the end, the hotel staff around him, he realises "It was going to take him weeks and months to discover what they so lucidly saw".

In "Under the canopy" a dying, confused husband has an unexpected day out for which the carer gets into trouble. I liked "The Day I Saw the Snake" where we track the lives of a bunch of musical friends. I don't like "The Pierian Spring". "The Whitsun Snoggings" has a good title and a fun monologue by Joanna. The plot of seeing repeated snoggings has potential which isn't delivered in this over-long story.

At over 80 pages "The Painter's Sons" is the longest piece. Enough things happen to stop it being too boring. The concluding "A Lemon Tree" (a merciful 6 pages long) contains a confused person who may or may not be at an Italian spa visited by famous people. It doesn't work for me in its current form, though I think it could be made to work.

In most stories the main character is a fish out of water. In some stories they meet other characters who are out of their element too, knowingly or otherwise. And there's usually someone who apologises for talking too much.

Other reviews

  • Chris Power (although Hensher is capable of very good, sometimes brilliant writing, I can’t say much of it is on show in his new collection of short stories ... The frustrating thing about Tales of Persuasion is that most of the stories are overlong, and it is easy to identify the fat that should have been trimmed. )
  • Ian Thompson (My Dog Ian, a bravura performance ... At times the writing is overblown — “He looked like the Book of Job, and you could imagine him spottily going to and fro on the earth, walking up and down on it, forgiving everyone in a pimply manner” — but on the whole the 11 stories have real edge and distinction.)
  • Randy Boyagoda (10 elegant stories that radiate with fine human feeling inspired by altogether muddled lives)
  • Leo Robson (As a fiction writer, Hensher has virtuosity on tap, so every page delivers something enjoyable and even eye-popping: a vibrant exchange, a spry description, a tickling bit of indirect speech. Yet the story emerges as a less-than-ideal courier. ... There is an emphasis on resignation and mild regret and the clarifying long perspective.)

No comments:

Post a Comment