BOOK REVIEW / Death-defying dances to the music of time: Evangelista's fan and other stories by Rose Tremain: Hamish Hamilton pounds 14.99

IF Rose Tremain ever puts a foot wrong in one of these stories, it comes as quite a shock, such are her spoilingly high standards and the dependability of her finely tuned prose. A small snatch of dubious Nashville dialogue and one twee ending - otherwise you can scarcely fault this collection.

And it is not a glib virtuosity. Tremain tackles some challengingly grave material. Having explored the physiological as well as emotional implications of transsexualism in her novel Sacred Country, she is clearly an author drawn to medical nuance. Here one little Chinese boy contracts Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from a growth hormone (which used to be extracted from the cadavers of mental patients) and he wants only to see his sister do her flamenco dancing one last time before he dies. In another story a 60-year-old woman collapses on the street from hydrocephalus and her husband describes how he survives the ordeal of her brain operation by mentally 'ice-dancing' with her - lifting and gliding - for support. The message in both cases is, when your loved ones are struck down, get dancing.

Tremain's geographical and historical range is satisfyingly broad. A French herald describes defeat at the battle of Agincourt alongside his own humiliation on the field of courtship. A bold widow whoops farewell to the world as she flings herself over Niagara Falls. In the title story an Italian refugee to London from Napoleon's wars switches from repairing clocks to making barometers when a hopeless romantic infatuation with a fan-

carrying beauty teaches him that it is preferable to measure what is coming up than to fix what is passing away.

There is a good deal of fist-shaking at old age, the odd sexual initiation (with twins) and the revenge of a jilted spinster by means of votive candle wax. It could be argued that there is an overabundance of cockle-warming and tear-jerking, but this is usually cut with a dash of tart wit.

Seven out of these 11 stories have appeared in anthologies or have been heard on BBC radio, but then recycling is one of the perks of short story writing. And in Rose Tremain's case who cares? It is such a pleasure to have this work collected in one volume.

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