Good Women, by Jane Stevenson

The fine art of revenge
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The Independent Culture

At around 70 pages a pop, a Stevenson novella is the perfect literary form for our attention-deficient era: short enough to span a couple of journeys into work or a pair of bedtimes, yet as satisfying emotionally as many fictions five times the length, and with a tension and humour nourished by their concision. Admirers of Stevenson's first collection, the four novellas of Several Deceptions in 1998, will find their patience rewarded in the three presented here. Elegant and cool, Stevenson's prose remains a wonderful thing, as efficient and unobtrusive as glass.

Good Women is a characteristically ambivalent title. Each narrative presents a woman who is long-suffering, patient and likeable, and whose virtues, in the loosest sense, are passing unrecognised. Yet none is good in the church-going sense; one is a homewrecker, two are potentially murderers, and two take considerable pleasure in brilliantly orchestrated revenge.

"Light My Fire" inhabits the appallingly sexist and snobbish mind of a Highlands-based architect whose elegant career slithers into freefall once he exchanges his aristocratic wife for a lower-middle-class mistress, then cruelly sets about trying to pass off her, and the dodgy country pile where he immures her, as the real thing. In "Walking with Angels", a dull, suburban wife finds she is prepared to sacrifice her four-square, childless marriage, the approval of her bossy sisters and, indeed, the safety of her immortal soul for the giddy pleasures of earning money and brightening women's lives by communicating with angels. In the strongest tale, "Garden Guerrillas", Garden Gorillas is the name of a nursery specialising in horticultural thugs, to which the widowed heroine turns when her cowardly son and brutal daughter-in-law use a trust to drive her from the house and glorious garden she has nurtured for decades.

In summary, these sound like the stuff of Alan Ayckbourn, and there are similarities - a cruel social eye, a sharply attuned ear for the nuances of speech, plots in which emotional constraint threatens to boil over into physical farce. For all the sense of a rigorous intelligence at play, however, Stevenson is not content to poke the vulnerabilities of social pretension. In "Garden Guerillas", she reveals a tender understanding of the spiky defensiveness and instinctive conservatism of a woman suddenly faced with independence and choice at an age when she looked for neither.

Patrick Gale's latest novel is 'Friendly Fire' (Fourth Estate)

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