BOOK REVIEW / New shoes and French twists: The Blue Woman - Mary Flanagan: Bloomsbury, pounds 13.99

THE SHORT story would seem to be a form in which competence - even a high level of competence - is widely attainable, but in which true greatness is exceedingly rare. The distance between accomplishment and brilliance is intangible but vast, and it may be, as much as anything, a matter of conviction.

The stories in Mary Flanagan's new collection, The Blue Woman, are extremely well-crafted (with the exception of a few, including, oddly, the title story), and written in clear, careful prose; but they remain somehow unsatisfying, both individually and en masse. This is the more striking because of the range and diversity of Flanagan's pen: the 16 pieces include a first person narrative in the voice of an abused child, several stories about growing up in America, two of which feature the Irish American Winkle family, and several third person tales about holidaymakers in Greece. There are even a couple of surreal fables, one about a woman whose new shoes give her the freedom to walk in comfort for the first time, until she finds herself enslaved by their perambulatory will ('The Shoe God'); and another about a woman who, seeking to escape the ravages of age, ingests a potion which makes her grow younger and younger until, rather than dying, she becomes unborn ('Not Quite Arcadia'). These two stories, along with 'The Wedding Dress' are the most memorable in the collection, not least for their wit and originality. Another, 'Beyond Barking', about octogenarian antics in an expensive old folks' home, is also particularly fine.

When others among the stories work less well, it is often because they seem too controlled, almost manipulative: 'Alice's Ear', about an impoverished girl who is wined, dined and murdered by a flash yuppie, is an extreme example of this tendency. Without its shocking ending, the story would have no resonance or momentum. It is a pattern repeated less dramatically elsewhere, as though Flanagan were writing to illustrate a point or to perform a trick, rather than following any organic plot developments. Reading this collection, one sometimes feels one is encountering an author's idea of what a story is, or should be, a self-conscious, if fine, approximation of that elusive quantity, 'truth'.

In 'The Octopus Vase', for example, the narrator encounters a woman named Veronica, to whom she is powerfully drawn, and who is subsequently the core and the catalyst of the narrative. 'A tall woman in black tights, a billowing white shirt and large dangling ear-rings was laughing louder than the rest. It was a thundering laugh, unselfconscious, uninhibited, the like of which I'd never heard from a woman. She wore her hair severely back in a French twist and her profile was striking. I could not help staring at her.' While expansive, this description is curiously indistinct. The reader must take on trust the narrator's enchantment, because the woman described could be almost anyone. This failing is one of conviction as much as of precision - whether it be Flanagan's or the reader's: ultimately Veronica does not exist, even for the duration of the story. How, then, could she continue to live in a reader's mind after the book is put down?

This is not to say that these stories are without merit. Many of them are clever, enjoyable, amusing and even wise. But for all their accomplishment, together they fall short of the great leap into any truly persuasive fictive reality.

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