Field Study, by Rachel Seiffert

Measuring the fall-out from Communism
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Rachel Seiffert's first novel, The Dark Room - really, a trilogy of long short stories - was shortlisted for the Booker prize and won her a place in Granta's round-up of the Best of Young British Novelists. Reading this new collection of stories, it is not hard to work out why she attracted such admiration. Her style is extraordinarily disciplined: terse, declarative sentences, shorn of messy adjectives, adverbs and similes, so that at times it seems daringly exposed. She is unafraid of big public themes: The Dark Room was concerned with Nazism and its aftermath in Germany; several stories in Field Study deal with with the fall-out from the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe.

Rachel Seiffert's first novel, The Dark Room - really, a trilogy of long short stories - was shortlisted for the Booker prize and won her a place in Granta's round-up of the Best of Young British Novelists. Reading this new collection of stories, it is not hard to work out why she attracted such admiration. Her style is extraordinarily disciplined: terse, declarative sentences, shorn of messy adjectives, adverbs and similes, so that at times it seems daringly exposed. She is unafraid of big public themes: The Dark Room was concerned with Nazism and its aftermath in Germany; several stories in Field Study deal with with the fall-out from the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe.

Along with these themes comes a genuine sense that she is bringing news from elsewhere. Seiffert is half-German and seems at home on the continent, unimpressed by foreignness, in a way that few English writers are.

Though her ambitions strike you as big, these stories have in common an intimate scale: they are about families, or individuals seeking a family.

The title story has a young scientist from an unspecified Western nation whose project is to measure river pollution in an equally vague country in central Europe. He strikes up a friendship with a fatherless boy and his attractive mother, thinks he detects sexual interest on the woman's part; but she rejects him. The pressures all three feel - a tug towards family, a sense of the inequality that makes familiarity impossible - are delicately suggested, never explained.

The final story, "Second Best", features the same mother and boy. Now they are definitely Polish, and she is working in eastern Germany to make money, but also because she wants to find the boy's father. She does, but he has a better life in Berlin, with a well-off girlfriend. Again, a small, private tragedy works to hint at a larger crisis between nations.

These are the most interesting stories. In between, a couple of others practise an oddly old-fashioned kind of kitchen-sink naturalism, with working-class characters trapped in grim, dull lives.

"Blue", about a young man trying to make a home for his pregnant girlfriend, is touching, but the dialogue is too sparse and under-characterised.

This is symptomatic of a deeper problem: an attenuated sense of individuality that fends off any engagement by the reader. In some stories, such as "The Crossing", in which a woman and her children are on the run from some kind of ethnic cleansing, there is a deliberate draining of local colour. This could be eastern Europe in 1941, or Yugoslavia 10 years ago. Perhaps we're meant to feel the universality of the situation; in fact, the overall effect is merely schematic.

It would help if Seiffert were a little less disciplined, if she could unbutton her prose from time to time. She is clearly gifted, but a writer needs a style; what she has at the moment is an avoidance of one.

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