Aphrodite's Hat, By Salley Vickers

The secret lives of others

With most short-story collections, you need to take a pause between each tale before immersing yourself in a new set of characters and a new setting. Not this one.

The stories in Aphrodite's Hat are so light, the characters so interesting, the situations so immediately appealing that you can devour them one after the other, like crisps.

Some stories are light-hearted, such as "The Indian Child", a sprightly re-telling of A Midsummer Night's Dream; some have a touch of the supernatural, such as "The Fall of a Sparrow", in which the ghost of the Romantic poet John Keats puts in an appearance; some are tear-inducingly poignant, such as "Moving".

The situations are wonderfully varied, but Salley Vickers' over-arching theme is the dynamics of human relationships. Central to the collection is "The Buried Life", a four-part story, the final part of which is simply Matthew Arnold's poem of the same name. The preceding parts illuminate that poem's theme of an inner life which we hide but yearn to share.

Vickers has real sympathy for her characters, but also a sharp eye for their petty spites and vices; she is also capable of creating nasty female characters, which is something that very few male writers have the confidence to attempt to do these days.

These stories have all the wit of Muriel Spark's stories, as well as the warmth that Spark lacks.

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