Books: A beastly holiday

MISSING THE MIDNIGHT by Jane Gardam Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 10
This sparkling collection of short stories shows Gardam poised between adult and children's fiction. Her simple tales have moral conundrums at their heart, yet are joyous and sensuous in sheer love of words. Take "The Zoo at Christmas", a fable filled with vivid images: the gorilla, with his "domed, grizzled head ... the shape of the helmet of the Black Prince", and the snow leopard who sounds "like a distant motorbike". The "hoofstock" inform the other inmates that, according to legend, animals kneel in worship on Christmas Eve. A sense of the numinous is essential, though there is nothing pious in these stories.

The narrator of the title story is missing more than the midnight service as her late train drags into the station. As she sourly anticipates a grim Christmas with her uncongenial family, her curiosity is awakened by the vibrant group in her carriage: an expensive-looking pair of fiances and an old priest, clearly the young man's father. There is a moment of grace on alighting as the priest lifts his hand in blessing to the discontented narrator, and then the story is over. Has she been reconciled to her lot? Gardam is inscrutable.

These are two of the "Five Carols", stories dealing obliquely or directly with the Christmas spirit. "Old Filth" is a snowbound tale of reconciliation

between two aged foes; "Miss Mistletoe" begins, uncompromisingly: "Daisy Flagg was a parasite." "Christmas Island", post-Christian, apocalyptic, is frightening science fiction. There are also "Five Grotesques" - a working man has a diamond embedded in his neck; a fashion editor suddenly discovers luxuriant blonde hair cascading from her ears - and "Two Hauntings".

"The Green Man" is a marvellous, lengthy piece, in which the fertility symbol of legend eats porridge, rides a bike, gets burgled and visits the corn chandler. Lest this seem too prosaic, he also captures mermaids. "Soul Mates" is so enigmatic that you can hardly work out what - if anything - has happened. On their first post-retirement holiday, Pat and and Francis Phipps meet a congenial couple who invite them to their home, but the visit brings both menace and comfort, their new friends vanish, and the couple are left shivering at their own lack of substance.