Books: A confidential clerk

The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife by Philip Hensher Chatto & Windus, pounds 10, 199pp: James Urquhart appreciates a wit with hidden heart
I FIRST read "Work" (one of the longer stories in this collection) in Granta, blithely assuming that the deadpan title clothed Hensher's own six years of experience as a House of Commons Clerk. A select committee of MPs take a trip to discuss monetary union in Prague and Rome, but the organising Clerk sardonically recalls other equally vapid trips - jollies masquerading as research. Many had become legendary among Clerks for one Member's ineptitude or another's tactlessness. Shortly after the committee's return, the Clerk is summarily sacked "for writing indiscreetly" about his job. Hensher's acerbically frank second novel, Kitchen Venom, indeed caused him to leave his job as a Commons Clerk.

"Work" remains an excellent example of his adroit, dry wit. Hensher has the same eye for vivid, paradigmatic detail as specialists in short fiction possess (Helen Simpson's two superb collections come to mind). Ford Sierras become "aubergine portents of the unarguably miserable life". Vera, the quite mad emigre landlady in "White Goods" (the succinct, hilarious opening story), bustles through the kitchen "like a small rhinoceros" to check the contents of a fridge she has named Stalin's Daughter. And Hensher's fond description of Soho's more recherche clientele as "grotesque and warty fauna calling across the urban swamp in the dim hope of some dim likeness" suggests a technique of attraction by no means confined to the gay community.

Homosexuality informs rather than defines Hensher's style and material, being naturally present in most stories just as work or wallpaper is. "Chartists" is a quietly political confession, mapping out a gay group in a who-fucked-whom diagram; "Geographers" masks the restless lonelinesses of cruising behind the horrible reality of queer-bashing. Several characters have fantasy girlfriends or fictitious "normal" lives; Hensher excels at glimpsing the squashed identities of displaced characters whose self- image and desire scratch against the grain of appearance.

The title comes from "Dead Languages", an oblique fable in which the bedroom of the Mister's wife provides an obscure locus of rumour. Hensher defly evokes a world of unreliable conversations, which emphasise the incompleteness with which we perceive others.

Though not entirely coherent as a collection, this volume combines 13 refreshingly tart slices of short fiction. Hensher's hallmark is literary sleight of hand, and most stories, in their own way, conceal as much as they reveal. His tales, though often edged with a gleeful darkness, are neither adult fables nor vignettes burdened with a heavy yoke of morality. But they do invite closer reading, and the carapace of his brightly gleaming prose often encloses an unexpected heart.