Bag ladies, wheelchairs and New Age travellers

Small publishers can be the most discerning when it comes to fiction. By DJ Taylor; Bloodlines by Julia Darling Panurge Publishing, pounds 6.99
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Julia Darling's first collection of stories - published by one of our liveliest small presses, Panurge - are peopled by pale, anorexic girls, would-be romantic novelists caught in dead-end relationships, and 30-year-old vegetarian feminists reckoning up a not very enticing past. What unites these women, apart from the bleak north-eastern landscapes in which they operate, is a mixture of innate toughness and circumstantial vulnerability. Janie in "Waving at the Queen" sits in a wheelchair, the isolated teenager of "The Sack Depot" has two deformed limbs: these are only the obvious burdens in a list that takes in babies, negligent parents and unreliable men.

The 14 extremely short short stories - none extends much beyond its tenth page - are attended by some powerful, if rapidly accumulated, ironies. In "Pearl", a pregnant woman walks each morning across a road superintended by a friendly lollipop lady, whose innocent habit it is to knit baby clothes for expectant mothers. But the baby's arrival is too much for Pearl, who tries to snatch it from its pram and is subsequently sacked from her job. Later, the woman finds Pearl pushing her own pram, in which reposes a knitted child.

A similar climax distinguishes "Affliction", whose narrator settles down with a sexy former New Age traveller named Jet. As passion turns inexorably into drudgery, she starts writing romantic novels. Eventually the relationship falls apart as the result of a nasty practical joke, by which Jet forges a publisher's letter of acceptance. Coming home from a visit to a friend, after Jet's departure, the woman finds its genuine equivalent on the doormat.

In less practised hands, this kind of stylised fable-mongering might fall away into sheer whimsy, but most of Darling's stories are redeemed by a razor-sharp edge. One of the best, perhaps, is "Nesting", in which a mother despairs over her daughter's reluctance to eat. All of a sudden, Gabrielle starts disappearing, provender in hand, to a nearby wood and the company of the mysterious "Hilary". While medical opinion advises that imaginary friends are a typical anorexic's ruse, the girl, curiously enough, begins to put on weight. Some years later she returns home to announce that Hilary has "gone all stiff and cold". Investigation reveals the body of a bag-lady in a tree-top hideaway.

In all, this is a consistently absorbing collection: Panurge - an offshoot of the Cumbrian literary magazine - can congratulate itself on a sound investment.