BOOK REVIEW : Cornfields and the smell of woodsmoke

HEART SONGS E Annie Proulx Fourth Estate £13.99

The 11 stories in Heart Songs come crammed with pattern E Annie Proulx sentences: "Hawkheel's face was as finely wrinkled as grass-dried linen, his thin back bent like a branch weighted with snow"; "The river lay between its banks like molten lead, the cornfields were as flat as wallpaper"; "Her head is tipped back steeply on the long neck column as she looks up at me, her narrow rouged mouth like a red wire." The trick involves figurative language that lashes character to environment like a hawser. Proulx's metaphors are tightly controlled, and on the rare occasions when she tries a deliberate flourish - "the heliodor mansions flashed like an armada signalling for attack"- the effect seems somehow over-elaborate for the lives on which the story will turn.

The environment in question is remote, rainswept New England. Reflecting this location, half-in and half-out of mainstream America, the characters are an odd collection old old-timers and new-comers, locals ground down by drink and disappointment, migrants on the make. At bedrock level, Proulx's stories are simply a mirror held up to a decaying rural world in which ancient farming families sell up and the apples rot on the orchard floor. The newcomers are city greenhorns, naive huntsmen avid for grouse, retired media kings in search of mountain views, high-minded colonists keen to snap up family photo albums and reproduce their contents in the National Geographic.

Many of the stories turn on these oppositions, mostly to ironic effect. In "Electric Arrows" the dispossessed remnant of a farming clan look on sourly as a pair of interlopers go blundering through the snares and pitfalls of rural life and eventually turn up what they imagine to be an Indian stone carving. Reading the newspaper, one of the farmers realises that the "complex petroglyph" was executed by his own father half a century before. In "The Unclouded Day" a yuppie's inept pot-shot at a grouse coincides with the onset of thunder - he happily assumes that the three birds killed by a simultaneous lightning bolt are a reward for weeks of fruitless practice.

Other pieces, markedly less comic, grow out of primordial tensions and jealousies. "Bed-rock" features a widowed smallholder who marries again, only to find himself terrorized by his young wife and her rackety brother, while "On the Antler" describes the antagonisms of a veteran hunter and his store-keeping rival. In nearly every case, though, the conflicts and their resolution are more complex than they seem. The title story, in particular, is a good example of Proulx's ability to frame people in a few odd fragments. A guitar-playing drifter who has walked out on the city and his marriage discovers a silent, self- absorbed family of country musicians whose performances have so far been confined to their front parlour. He wants to hustle the Twilights into a recording studio, but he also covets the woman whom he (wrongly) identifies as old man Twilight's daughter. Embarrassed and repulsed he goes back to his surly wife, the swift abandonment of his plans only confirming the complacent purposelessness of his life.

Like many another evocation of the back porch and woodsmoke side of American life, this is written in a highly literary style, a feigned style. At its best, though, the writing bristles with laconic insights. In "Electric Arrows", for example, the protagonist recalls his father wiring up the county's first electrity supplies. "The farmer would shake his hand, the wife would dab at her watery, strained eyes and say `It's a miracle' - as if my father had personally given them this wonder. Yet you could tell they despised him, too, for making things easy."

The conspicuous merits of this volume, issued in the wake of Proulx's Pulitzer-winning The Shipping News, are only slightly tarnished by the scent of a publisher cashing in. A tiny front-end paragraph notes that "many" of the stories appeared in a collection published in the US in 1988. In fact, all but two did, and the same collection - with a near- identical cover - has also been available here as a paperback. Excellent as Heart Songs undoubtedly is, no-one should be fooled into thinking that it is an original publication.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before