Books: There must be more to life than stereotypes

Another Kind of Cinderella by Angela Huth Little, Brown, pounds 15.99; Louise Doughty reads a volume of stories that suddenly breaks out the ordinary

I wonder who decides the order in which stories appear in collections - the author, I presume, which makes it all the more odd that the least interesting tales seem to come first. Angela Huth's new collection gives the immediate appearance of a writer on automatic pilot, turning out neat little tales of disappointed lives that lie quite flat on the page.

The first, the title story, is a predictable tale of a provincial violinist who spends his spare time tending his frightful widowed mother and fantasising about the heroine in the local pantomime. It seems inevitable that his name should be Reginald.

Stereotypes abound throughout this collection: elderly actresses are eccentric; social workers are heartless busybodies; Irish people are nice, cute and not very bright. A young man at Oxford wears "pale, baggy trousers of crushed linen, as if he'd just discovered Brideshead''. Despite the differences in ages and class between the various characters, there is a feeling that they all live in the same world, a world of tea and cake and unfulfilment. In a telling scene, a woman feels obliged to accept the attentions of a man she finds unpleasant merely because she is hungry. "In return for a drink and a sandwich, she was prepared to put up with almost any kind of company.'' She is a barrister.

It is only when we get to the fifth of 11 stories, "Laughter in the Willows'', that Huth's real qualities begin to shine through. It is no coincidence that this is also one of the longest stories. The opening sentence is typical: "It was Isabel Loughland's second summer up at Oxford and in her own mind she was a failure.'' For the first few pages the story seems no different from those preceding, but gradually, a sense of the sinister creeps in. What emerges is a genuinely frightening ghost story, the resolution of which leaves the reader chillingly unreassured.

Another tale, "Alternative Behaviour'', also uses a stereotype, this time in the shape of a rebellious New Age daughter who dyes her hair and swears and forces carrot juice down the throat of her dying father - but again, there is an interesting narrative undertone. Although she appears to side with the parents, Huth leaves the question open to the end: which is going to turn out worse for the old man, raw liver or chemotherapy?

All of which seems to suggest that Huth is most comfortable when she has a narrative to deal with. She is adept at moving action forward. She seems less at ease with evoking mood, unless it is the wash of failure that colours most of her characters' lives. An exception is "To Re-Arrange a Room'', a vivid snapshot of a man easing his mistress and her belongings out of his flat before his wife returns. Huth is very good indeed at showing the way in which possessions are evocations of an individual's character, even - especially - if the effect is unintentional.

This quality is also evident in "The Wife Trap''. A middle-aged woman visits her ex-husband 17 years after their divorce and notes the "plastic blinds at the window, a torn shade on the overhead light, a Formica table patterned with ribbons and roses of crude yellow and blue''. The reader shares her sense of superiority, until it becomes increasingly clear that the wife has a few problems of her own. The narrative is punctuated by what she will later report to a neighbour - and truth and delusion swiftly diverge, as they so often do in real life.

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