Hitting Trees with Sticks, By Jane Rogers

Eavesdropping on lives, from the adventurous to the mundane
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The Independent Culture

Jane Rogers is admirably hard writer to pigeon hole. For a long time she was best known for her historical novel Mr Wroe's Virgins, later turned adapted into a BBC2 drama. More recently her novel Island was long-listed for the Orange Prize, and she confounded SF pundits by bagging the Arthur C. Clarke award for her futuristic novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb. Her first short story collection Hitting Trees with Sticks doesn't reinvent the form, but entertains with a set of cliche-free stories that rarely end up where you'd expect.

Like all good short story writers, Rogers has mastered the art of making you feel that you're quietly eavesdropping on real lives. Some of her characters kick off with mundane observations – an estate agent moans about the jingle jangle of Christmas muzak, a window-cleaner owns up to his choicest sightings – while others find themselves in the midst of life-changing adventures undertaken on alien continents and under foreign suns.

A writer more interested in storytelling than impressing with well-judged prose, Rogers's tales can sometimes feel too matter of fact. But then comes along a story like "Morphogenesis" to remind us what a distinctive writer Rogers can be. In this memorable entry Rogers re-imagines the life of a computer scientist from his schoolboy crush on a fellow six-former to the affair that brought his private life to the attention of Her Majesty's Government. Rogers artfully explains the mathematician's fascination with the theories of natural pattern formation. Her tender descriptions of the molecular imperatives of fir cones and fairy flax, embryos and shells, are some of the most striking passages in the book.

When it comes to her stories of family dysfunction, Rogers's insights pale in comparison with the fierce and modish utterances of her near contemporaries Tessa Hadley and Helen Simpson. But that's not to say the collection lacks humour. Rogers's laugh-out-loud story about a middle-aged woman trapped inside an automated foot massager is worth the cost of the book alone.