Books: To have and to hold, in football and in love

Middle age and youth: Lilian Pizzichini on recent story and essay collections

Middle-aged melancholy is the prevailing mood of novelist Lee Langley's collection of interlinked short stories, False Pretences (Chatto pounds 11.99). Widowed Josie and unmarried Susan drift through a series of encounters, either on the periphery or in the foreground of each piece. Langley distills moments of opportunity that are missed or embraced by each woman, and that gradually coalesce into lives that are filled with a diffuse sadness and touched with fleeting pleasures. Epiphanies are rare, and when they do occur, they are marked with compromise.

In "Tango", Gloria, just one of a series of bored, single, middle-aged women, learns to tango in order to impress Geoffrey, the colleague at whom she has set her cap. "This was the moment, the cusp of the year, with change in the air, when the subject of the office dance invariably came up." Langley is far too subtle, and too much of a realist, to allow her heroine a romantic climax to her dance. Instead, the bland Gloria is transformed into a sinuous, whirling "Lola Montez" complete with kiss- curl and spiky high heels. Geoffrey, meanwhile, is revealed in all his mediocrity: "Just another grey man. He held no mystery."

If read all at one go, the mood in Langley's delicately constructed stories starts to pall, and the heavy stillness of claustrophobic interiors and muggy weather - the indulgence in heady nostalgia - induce a feeling of disaffection. But, taken one at a time, her tableaux make languid appeals for empathy, and the faltering steps these women take in order to evade positive action successfully evoke the dramatic complexities of their inner lives.

Michel Faber is a younger writer, and his first collection of short stories, Some Rain Must Fall (Canongate pounds 8.99), displays a need to impress. Each story shows off a range of voices, characters, styles, and acute psychological probing.

The title story, which won last year's Ian St James award, is a sincere, sympathetic portrayal of a trouble-shooting teacher sent in to counsel a class of children who have witnessed a harrowing act of violence. Frances Strathairn brings order and compassion to her charges, but not to her own life. Like Langley, Faber is concerned with moments of crisis, but not necessarily with exposition. Sister Josephine in "In Case of Vertigo" contemplates suicide from the snug safety of her car perched on the edge of a cliff. Faber chronicles the daily routine which repeatedly puts off the dread moment.

In these instances Faber offers a perceptive analysis of characters in extremis. But in his eagerness to experiment with form, he occasionally lapses into surreal hypothetical set-ups which fail to convince. "Miss Fatt and Miss Thinne" takes its protagonists' names all too literally, and their absurd dilemma provokes neither laughter nor sympathy. In creating a world in which anything can happen, when it does happen, it's hardly a surprise.

Novelist and translator Tim Parks is concerned with moral dilemmas as they affect his and his friends' lives. Parks lives with his Italian wife and children in Verona where he has immersed himself in the European tradition of belles lettres. Adultery & Other Diversions (Secker pounds 12.99) is the work of a man approaching middle age and confronting these themes in the form of autobiographical essays, looking back on his life, and forward through his children's.

Each essay displays a humanity, grace and lucidity that illuminates his writing. Parks brings a wide range of reading - Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Roberto Calasso - to these deeply personal pieces, in which philosophical abstractions are brought to bear on straying husbands and the endless trials of child- rearing. This is especially the case in "Analogies", where Parks attempts "to establish a difference between fidelity and faith, in football and love". The divide between passion and family, both absolutes and both seemingly irreconcilable, creates a tension that recreates his adulterous friend's pressing need for self-affirmation. Ultimately, each sexual betrayal is no more diverting than the fly that buzzes around Parks's computer screen while he wrestles with a difficult passage that he is trying to translate.

Duty or diversion, glory or mundanity: Parks teases out the implications these weighty concepts have on our lives. That he succeeds is due to his skill as a storyteller and his lightness of touch in meting out his considerable erudition.

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