Possessed by dreams

THE VANISHING PRINCESS Jenny Diski Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 9.99

Reading Jenny Diski, one is aware of large distances being travelled without haste even in the shortest of these short stories. Whole states of mind are betrayed by asides which take you right under the itchy and ill-fitting skins of the protagonists: "Christina did not mind having intercourse," she writes, "at least at the beginning." Another part of the secret is her unhurried prose, sentences momentarily slowed by light pauses: "She lacked, perhaps, curiosity"; or "One morning, she supposed, she would find the door to her room open. . ."

Despite her cool touch, Diski's subjects are often dark and troubling, pushing way outside anyone's comfort zone. One tale deals with a housewife and her lover so gorged on each other's sexuality that he sends her a huge, dark, oozing pig's liver through the post as a sign of his desire. Another follows a girl from a broken family who is expelled from school and, not mad at all, consigned to a mental asylum by her mother.

Some of the characters are downright perverse, others are just normal obsessives. "Bath Time" is a wonderful piece about a woman who longs for just one day to herself, so that she can spend it in the bath. Years pass, she studies, becomes a teacher, gets married, yet she never manages to combine all the right circumstances for realising her dream. Meanwhile many key things happen in the bath - hot baths for an abortion, an LSD trip, bath time with new baby. Meg's marriage silently breaks up in the bathroom as both partners gradually resent the other's intrusions - "Neither of them could say, `I want a door on the bathroom,' because it was obvious that it would be tantamount to saying, `I want a divorce' ".

The cost of Meg's obsession grows steadily higher, but Diski holds you close in, so that Meg is never an object of pity or scorn, her single- mindedness is indeed admirable: "You only had to know what it was you really wanted," as she says to herself. Like other stories in the collection, this stands poised at the edge of satire, yet the perceptive nature of the detailing keeps the characters well within the realms of the possible.

Jenny Diski's writing has an intellectual assurance which does not, however, inhibit the emotional content. Although one or two of her tales are essentially cerebral games, essays in irony, such as the opening story about a princess and cubism, on balance she is clever without being dry. The woman who, experiencing intense pleasure for the first time, suddenly realises how dreary her life has been; the woman so possessed by irrational jealous fears that she destroys a happy relationship - these are real predicaments of trapped people.

Her female protagonists find themselves floating in worlds over which they have little control, until eventually they are provoked into making some defiant stab at taking action. When the mother of a teenage girl is suddenly asked those dreaded questions about sex and drugs, she feels herself sliding into panic: "Constance felt like dirty water swirling down a plughole. She could see what was coming, but what was to be done about it?" Desperately, she clutches at pragmatism rather than rectitude - and teaches her daughter how to roll a joint. Another woman, who becomes consumed by anxiety every time her MOT approaches, finally experiences a moment of clarity and intuition and simply sells the car.

These drastic decisions are characterised by Jenny Diski's deadpan, penetrating humour and delivered with the matchless timing which is her stock-in-trade. The cracked solutions devised by her characters do in the end answer to a certain internal logic, and, in their circumscribed lives, each flags up a small individual freedom that has been won.

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