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

The Bedroom of the Mister's Wife by Philip Hensher Chatto pounds 10

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea