I am unusually (for me and reading) measured and disciplined with the short story. One a day at most, occasionally two, but one good one will give me enough to think about through the day as a sort of little performance stage to walk onto in my mind. A nice place to visit as I go about the less exciting aspects of life chez dovegrey, where things still need ironing, washing machines need feeding, you spend half your life on this recycling thing and cats still sick up on the kitchen floor, you know the score.
However schedules and discipline were scattered to the west winds when I started reading Polly Samson's new collection, Perfect Lives, recently published by Virago.
Now I'll own up I only picked this up in desperation for a book to take along to the Endsleigh Salon last week for the theme of Music.
How can I have struggled with such an enticing theme and always I promise myself that I'll be organised like Linda and Rebecca, but there I was Mrs Last-Minute.Com again? So I bargained with Polly Samson and said she could come with me if I got the merest hint of music in the first story. Polly squeaked it with a reference to a song playing on the car radio but in fact it wouldn't have mattered because it didn't need a song, I was hooked anyway, and to be honest she was home and dry with her epigraph from Leonard Cohen,
"It's the notion that there is no perfecttion - that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances."
Dear old Leonard, how we loved him and music surfaces frequently in this collection, in the shape of concert pianists, classical singers and piano tuners, and I felt at times as if I was reading the literary equivalent of a suite or a concerto or a fugue or something. Help me out musical readers...the one where the melody changes and is reshaped a little later on, enough to trigger your memory of what went before.
This musical interest would all have come as no surprise had I done my homework first because Polly Sansom is a pianist and lyricist and the wife of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame, so clearly music matters, but as Dave Gilmour has been keen to point out about Polly's book ..."it's not %&*^&% autobiographical." so don't go there. I don't know about you but I rarely make that assumption about fiction these days so no problem. In fact forget autobiographical connections (and what would I know) I was more as sick as a parrot to discover I'd read five stories in one sitting and the remaining six in another which meant I didn't have any left and I wanted many more.
The difference being that in this collection that is Perfect Lives... except you know these are only going to be Perfect-Enough Lives because Leonard has said as much... the stories connect and weave into each other offering differing perspectives on the lives they contain. The web is intricately woven across the whole which made this book read quite differently, unlike a disparate collection here there were connections to hold in mind and make throughout.
This is my favourite sort of writing, events told slant and all off to a riveting start with Celia's discovery of her husband's waywardness and her subsequent coping strategies, and all set against the backdrop of the beach side home, exposed and battered by the weather and the sight of the waves. A home harbouring secrets which are slowly unwrapped, just a few words here, a few there, enough to help me sniff out the trail and a home offering but limited protection for poor Celia's battered emotions too...amazing what can sneak in through the letter box. And then there are the waves with their potential to be calm and soothing or to hold the power of malevolent forces, and all exploited wonderfully in the telling of this story. The local weather forecast here in Devon always predicts wave conditions for surfers and often the lovely David Brain tells us the waves are 'messy', Celia knows about 'messy' waves.
The stories progress through the connected lives so this is one collection you need to read in the given order, which I often don't, if you are to get to grips with who belongs to who and thus experience the full and very satisfying impact of the slow dawning realisation about those relationships.
It all reminded me of health visiting days and suddenly in mid-home visit someone would say, "Oh you visit my sister" and then you'd place them in a much bigger setting and pull in another raft of background information that informed and expanded on what you already knew. Talking of which, a stout health visitor wearing Hush Puppies features in this book, and doing daily visits too, (neither of those is me in this picture by the way, but I do love it and one of them is a health visitor...your guess) so for all its contemporary setting this bit must have been well before my time.I didn't wear Hush Puppies once in thirty years honest, and daily visits?
Then there are the gaps and silences and how much I appreciate an un-bossy writer who trusts me to fill them as I choose, not as they insist.
Prose described as lyrical switches me off almost as much as limpid, I think we need to draw on a whole new batch of prose-describing adjectives, I just can't think of any at the moment so perhaps decide for yourselves...
'She grew up with the delicate weight of her grandmother's dreams draped around her shoulders like a shawl...'
'That and the way he played Chopin, long strong fingers playing the keys so softly they might have been stroking the cheek of an infant...'
Pulling 'lyrical prose' out of context may do it no favours now I read that back but when you come across moments like this in a book, and in a short story in particular, it really is like finding your favourite chocolate in a box that you are already enjoying gorging on anyway.