All alone in the world

LISTENING TO THE ORCHESTRA and other stories by Susan Hill Long Barn Books pounds 3.99

ALREADY highly successful as a novelist and playwright, Susan Hill has turned publisher for this small but choice collection of four of her new short stories. It's a pleasing little volume: in plain, no- nonsense blue paperback, only the price seems a possible stumbling block - now that we are lazily used to pocket-sized books at 75p or pounds 1, her pounds 3.99 could seem steep. But the book is deceptively dense and rich, and costs about the same as three cups of coffee at Canary Wharf.

The richness lies in the texture of the stories themselves. Each is perfectly formed - almost so perfectly, in fact, that they would seem over-careful were it not for their undeniable emotional impact. And they form a neatly varied quartet, variations on the theme of piercing loneliness. The first, the title story, has an Anita Brookner-esque heroine shifted several rungs down the social scale, skivvying in a desolate seaside hotel in winter, where "the loneliness was like a crater in the ground, and she had fallen to the bottom of it. She clawed at the sides sometimes, seeing figures moving about above, and they would see her and look curiously down. But when she looked away again, and moved, she lost her hold and fell back, fingernails ripped and bleeding. Or that was how she dreamed it sometimes, in a waking dream."

A child on her regular outing with a blind uncle witnesses the small, appalling death of his dignity; a young girl in an Irish village feels the drudgery that imprisoned her mother close round her, too, like a steel snare; in a cold, remote Eastern European city two lonely people fail to connect. But in each of these almost unbearably poignant, intricately crafted fictions there is a small twist that brings - well, hardly a ray of hope, but a hint that even the most desolate life contains a gleam of possibility. This is the art of the short story raised to a very high pitch.

! ISBN 0-9528285-0-2. Long Barn Books is at Ebrington, Gloucestershire GL55 6NW

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