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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice