IoS book review: Hitting Trees With Sticks, By Jane Rogers

No defeat and no surrender

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The Independent Culture

One of the most unjustly underrated writers around, Jane Rogers is the author of the Orange Prize-longlisted novel Island, the Man Booker-longlisted The Testament of Jessie Lamb (which won the Arthur C Clarke Award), and the novel and subsequent BBC2 adaptation of Mr Wroe's Virgins (remember that?), along with five other novels and TV and radio dramas. This is her first collection of short stories, and it is beautiful.

In "Saved", a young woman battles her drink-sozzled mother, a trailer-full of rotting apples and her own melancholy to try to move her dead grandmother's old bed. In "Conception", a mother remembers conceiving a child in a run-down holiday cottage, as she and the child, now grown-up, slice beans.

"My Mother and Her Sister" sees another grown-up daughter's grief shift focus as she perceives her aging aunt as a woman, much like herself. In "Where Are You, Stevie?", one woman hears the tinselly rattle of Christmas muzak every time she tries to go to sleep; another hears a baby's cries. The title story spans an elderly lady's life in nine-and-a-half poignant pages. In many of the stories, mothers and aunts keep their secrets, or are found out.

The stories are set all over the world (Manchester and Uganda appear more than once), but the themes are familiar: ageing, guilt, loss. The "cidery whiff of rotten apples" in "Saved" seeps through the stories with the tang of decay. A "defeated-looking black Labrador" in the guesthouse in "Conception" embodies a sort of giving in, against which many of the stories' human characters still fight.

Rogers has an unnerving talent for swerving at the last minute away from a cliché, and a knack for finding just the right phrase to describe a feeling so vividly that you only just realise how familiar it is: air so cold that it "felt solid as ice cream in my lungs"; whisky that "lit a line like the trace of a sparkler, from my mouth to my belly". While ghosts and death creep through her stories like dry rot through a crumbling house, they often end on an uplifting note of unexpected, dizzy triumph.

Rogers has written a brand new seasonal short story, exclusively for The Independent on Sunday, which will be published in these pages at Christmas. If it's anything like the stories in this collection, it will be a gift.