BOOK REVIEW / Tale of two handbags: 'Spoilt' - Georgina Hammick: Chatto, 13.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
GEORGINA HAMMICK made a dazzling debut in 1987 with People for Lunch, and is it's good to see her going on in the same vein: these are funny, observant, cleverly structured stories about humiliation, death, loss of illusions, betrayal, remorse, and other everyday matters.

In 'The American Dream', a story in the class of Elizabeth Bowen or Alice Munro, about the nine-year-old twins of an English diplomat in 1950s Washington, the boy spoils the life of the awkward American girl he has fallen in love with by telling her what her 'best friend' really thinks of her - an error so cruel that he has retrospectively to rewrite the whole story of their parting: 'But the story won't stick, it refuses to stay down, in the way that a badly gummed label on a used envelope refuses, curling back instead to reveal an earlier, and more authentic, life.' He sees later that such fictionalising reinventions of the past are the commonplace, unconscious, necessary processes of self-deception which make 'spoilt' life acceptable.

Hammick makes a speciality of such self- deceptions. These aren't stories which arrive at climaxes of truth or change. But there may be a shift in perception, a compromise, a moment (perhaps just after the end of the story) when people see how it is they tend to behave or what they have been concealing from themselves.

The title story of People for Lunch - middle-class country widow living with teenage children muddles angrily through the day, holding off terrible grief - is reworked with variations in Spoilt. In 'Maeve Goes to Town' the husband has gone off with a girl, the children (whose offhand mixture of brutality, self-righteousness and silliness Hammick gets brilliantly) dominate the house, and Maeve humiliates herself horribly at the smart London party which she pretends has been a great success. In 'The Dying Room', an argument over the use of the word 'drawing room' between the forbearing widowed mother and the politically correct son gradually discloses the underlying story of her grief and remorse over her husband's death.

These class-bound domestic female narratives might sound small stuff, and sometimes Hammick does allow herself to be merely wry and wise- cracking about woman's lot in a Fay Weldonish way - as on the husband who always said 'I' when he was married and now, with his new girlfriend, always says 'we'. She can also be a bit cute and cosy. But her best tone is equivocal rather than shrewd, alert to feelings of dread or loss which get us beyond mere surface charm. When 'the defeated and negative Maeve' risks the terrible chic party, she takes the wrong handbag with her, the one with all 'the day-to-day clutter of her life' which she empties out on a table, looking for her lighter. A passing celebrity sneers: 'Is this a white-elephant stall?' The bag is like her mind: 'I'm never quite sure what I believe . . . It varies. I'm never exactly sure what I feel or where I stand or what I want or who I am.'

'Then it's time you made up your mind, lovey, isn't it?' replies a successful feminist, not a Hammick heroine. Hers is the sort of woman who, when lost and given directions by a passer-by, concentrates on other details - a red door, a tortoiseshell cat - and finds as she sets off that she hasn't taken in a word.

Distraction and uncertainty let in eloquent details, small telling glimpses of people's lives, which pour into these stories like the contents of Maeve's bag: messy, specific, and human. Georgina Hammick's tone and talents are perfectly suited to this form: I hope she won't feel she has to write a novel next.

(Photograph omitted)

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