Books: Work, property and sex in short, measured doses

The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife by Philip Hensher Chatto pounds 10
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The Independent Culture
The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife is Philip Hensher's long-promised short-story collection. Regular readers of the annual New Writing anthology (to which Hensher has contributed over the last five years) will have observed that it has undergone at least one change of title, and was at one point going to be called Zuleika Dobson in the Great War. While the new title is more prosaic, the stories are not and it doesn't take long to realise it's been worth the wait.

Most short story collections tend to be contract-fillers, but with Hensher that's clearly not the case. In fact, Hensher's stories are so central to his oeuvre that it is impossible to judge his literary merit without taking this book into account. There are 14 stories. Of these, four are excellent, three are good, four are OK, two are below-par and one is nonsense.

The excellent stories deal with the most conventional topics. Hensher is an old-fashioned, European-influenced short-story writer, and most of the tales deal with work, property and sex. "Quiet Enjoyment" takes the uncompromising subject matter of a man who is troubled by his noisy neighbours. Hensher plays the story so that you immediately realise that he expects you to see both sides of the conflict. Any urban dweller will understand how the protagonist has been driven to distraction by his inability to comprehend how his neighbours can stay up all night listening to music and yet still be awake in time for work. But then most readers will also no doubt understand the allure of burning the candle at both ends. Thus Hensher places his audience in an uneasy position, especially when the disturbed man starts hatching plans to kill the young people next door.

"A Chartist" takes the old undergraduate wheeze of compiling a chart mapping the cities' copulations, and shows how making this information public alters two lives. Alters, rather than ruins, as the underlying moral of most of these stories is that people can find new lovers, new affairs, new stories. Given Hensher's public image, it's quite surprising how empathetic he proves. The protagonist of his story, "Two Cities", is an unloved young woman called Carol. Hensher's narrator toys with being vicious towards her before drawing back from the easy kill. There are lots of odd characters here, to be sure (a man called Hilary who believes that women urinate through their vaginas is perhaps the most amusing), but they never lose their humanity.

As in Hensher's last novel, Pleasured, much of the energy in the writing comes from the collision of old and new. It's interesting how well Hensher handles this, and just as his writing about Ecstasy was elevated by the context, so his story about the internet manages to be a traditional ghost- story and something new at the same time. Another driving force is the notion that there are two specific types of existence. There is the life worth living, which in Hensher's formulation is the life devoted to excellence, and there is just getting by. It's hard to know how seriously to take this preoccupation, but it does give rise to another of the excellent stories, "Forbidden Etudes", in which a 26-year-old pianist is stricken with hepatitis, and ends up accompanying a young mother as the two of them attempt to play Chopin.

The below-par stories are "Elektra" and "Dead Languages". Neither are especially bad, they just suffer from the overall quality of the collection. "Elektra" suffers from being concept-driven, "Dead Languages" is just too slight. The nonsense is "God", a piece of frippery penned for the Erotic Review. Aside from this, Hensher's only weakness is his manner of titling the stories. Almost every title is a particularly poetic phrase taken from the story, which sometimes works but occasionally clanks like a bad joke. But this is a minor, forgivable problem, and should not detract from the excellence of this otherwise superlative performance.