Field Study by Rachel Seiffert

Unfinished business in the turmoil of war
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A small child toddles his way along the beach from his harrassed parents, minded by an older sister who eases a 10-pack from her waistband and uses her brother as camouflage for lighting up. The boy finds the washed-up corpse of a seal, with others barking plaintively in the surf. Mother catches up and hugs them both, quickly and silently rebuking her daughter while deflecting the boy's wide-eyed anxieties about death. This is "Tenstmuir Sands", perhaps the best story in this collection, ably combining a poignant exchange with the sharp barb of promised trouble beyond the story itself.

Most of the other 10 stories here hinge upon crises. Rachel Seiffert draws characters coping with tough emotional problems, often compounded by a degree of poverty. "Reach" explores the intractable difficulty of a woman struggling to make a latch-key daughter attend school while she manages her hair salon. "Blue" is a deceptively quiet account of young Kenny, feathering the nest of his new flat in the hope that his pregnant girlfriend will move in.

There is a rump of five stories set mostly in Eastern Europe. This suggests unfinished business held over from The Dark Room (Seiffert's Booker-shortlisted debut novel of shattered families coping with the turmoil of war). The title story finds Martin testing a river for industrial pollution. His phlegmatic diligence is enlivened by Ewa, a waitress at whom he makes a cumbersome pass before retreating back to his western life, and her bounding son Jacek. Their difficult circumstances are clarified when they reappear in the long closing story, "Second Best".

"The Crossing", in which a woman struggles to get her family across a bridgeless river in a war-torn landscape, is the most curious selection. It won a short story prize in 2001 but also appears (almost unaltered) in the middle section of The Dark Room. This bolsters my suspicion thatField Study is an overspill of material from that novel. Seiffert's pared-down prose evoked emotional austerity in a novel dealing with grim and essentially shocking experiences. The same emotional economy dominates Field Study, but the effect on a selection of unlinked short stories is one of distance, a lack of colour and range. If Seiffert is striving for a homogeneous narrative style, then she sails perilously close to monotony. Field Study holds some good stories of mournfully muted hope, but demands of Seiffert a greater confidence to expand her voice. This seam feels mined out; there is potential for richer ones with further digging.