BOOK REVIEW / Yellow scarf dreams: 'Evangelista's Fan' - Rose Tremain: Sinclair-Stevenson, 14.99 pounds: Michele Roberts considers the refined clarity and historical fervour of Rose Tremain's short stories

THE territory invented by Rose Tremain's imagination is large and strange, by turns real and surreal, 18th-century Italy nudging 20th-century Nashville, Corsica, Niagara. A landscape of the interior, too, mapping all kinds of possibilities. The stories range over eccentric childhoods, Regency clockmaking, death in various guises, the battle of Agincourt. Diverse in subject, the writing is equally diverse in style. In turn, the narratives of social realism, American dirty realism, thrillers, teenage confessions, and moral fables reveal themselves as appropriate to the matter in hand. The collection works as a sampler displaying sophisticated examples of postmodern writing. The one unchanging element is the cool intelligence animating the stories. They are elegant and fastidious; we sense a writer who cares deeply about craft, taking her time to pick out words one by one and set them in tightly structured arrangements. The unfaltering control of the story-telling is matched by a lack of overt feeling, which is left, I think, to the reader to supply.

Good writing produces a sound that goes on resonating in your memory after you have shut the book. The music of Rose Tremain's narratives is as definite as small hammer blows, advancing through short sentences, statements of fact: 'All around the pastry board were crumbs of wax and used matches. Mercedes tried to sweep them into her hand and throw them in the sink. She felt dizzy after her sleep on the table. She staggered about like a drunk. She knew she'd been having beautiful dreams. When she opened her door, she saw a man standing there. He wore a beige mackintosh and a yellow scarf. Underneath the mackintosh, his body looked bulky. He wore round glasses. He said: 'Mercedes?' She put a hand up to her red burning cheek. She blinked at him.'

Those short, sharp, uncomplicated sentences set up a rhythm of certainty, like a hand beating a drum. They work, in a beautifully ironic way, against the drift of the story, which suggests that loss and uncertainty is all there is, that chaos rules, that a lump of wax may be a human heart, that a lit votive candle may be 'the voice of a lover, the candle is a catch of mackerel, the candle is a drench of rain, a garden of marrows, a neon sign, a year of breath . . .'

Mercedes, the protagonist of 'The Candle Maker', finally learns to trust in change as she learns to trust in her own capacity for forgiveness. Named after Our Lady of Mercy, she finally draws back from witchy revenge, from the magic women perform in kitchens: 'she put Louis Cabrini's waxen heart into the rounded saucepan and melted it down and turned it back into votive candles'. The story, ostensibly set in Corsica, conveys less the reality of that particular culture than the way that 'Corsica' functions to indicate the savage and romantic recesses of the human heart. Catholicism, with its sensual appeal, its invocation of gods and goddesses under the guise of saints, is crucial to it. Here, magical realism meets the Church, a fine field for Tremain to play in.

The confidence and simplicity of her language emerge in other ways. She's very good on detail, letting a little stand for a lot. In 'Two of Them' the puzzled boy narrator struggles with a mother who is swiftly sketched in as reading Country Life and drinking Gin and It and crying into a bag of chestnuts. 'Ice Dancing' revolves around a husband whose 'Revlon girl' of a wife has escaped the Soviet chill of multiple weddings seen on a tourist trip to Moscow, where 'the brides were wearing thin dresses of white net and carrying blood-red bouquets', only to succumb to a frightening and nameless disease that robs her of personality and returns her to somewhere non-human, submerged under the ice of the title.

The herald who is the hero of 'The crossing of Herald Mountjoy' displays his sensitivity by his capacity to notice, in the middle of bloody war, in a pause between hostilities, how the morning is 'salt-white with frost'. The lovely image then suggests Mountjoy's state of mind as well as the theme: 'The land he must cross has been ploughed and he's worried that the horse is going to stumble on the icy ridges of earth. A mist hangs on the fields, milky and dense, and the herald wishes that this, too, wasn't there. This and the hard frost give the day such strange singularity.'

Reading these stories I was reminded of Flaubert's stern dictum that the author must remove himself or herself from the text, and his simultaneous confession: Madame Bovary, c'est moi. Leaving aside this delicious picture of the great don in corsets and bustle, it's fascinating to see how Rose Tremain dissolves her own presence, her own identity inflected by class and gender, into these fictions which dance forth announcing their Americanness, their Italianness, their boyishness, their maleness, in a dazzling parade of disguises. Rarely does she employ a female narrative voice speaking from somewhere recognisably English.

The effect of this is to make one admire her cleverness, her ingenuity and range, while occasionally feeling kept at some distance emotionally. Her male characters emerge in close- up as a vulnerable, tender, thoughtful and kindly lot, sometimes constrained by idiotic cultural rules to behave coldly or cruelly. What redeems them, when this happens, is Tremain's clear-eyed intelligence and compassion, especially for the young. A hero, in these stories, is someone who has desires and goes on quests. These are themes which in her hands transcend history and geography.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot