Love Me Tender, By Jane Feaver

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The Independent Culture

Jane Feaver's memorable debut, According to Ruth, depicted the dog days of a Seventies marriage. Her second book, a collection of short stories set in rural Devon, confirms her considerable talents. Revolving around the love lives of the inhabitants of the small town of Buckleigh, these prickly and passionate tales capture the brief moment of reprieve before the rain-clouds crowd in.

The Red Lion pub is the starting point of many a wrong turn. It's where the Buckleigh brass band congregates on Wednesday nights, where widowers pull up a stool at Christmas and where the village singletons seek out "something warm to hang on to." Characters who crop up in the opening stories often reprise their part later on, lending the book the scope and resonance of a novel. Feaver's lonely hearts range from sulky teenagers and bruised mothers, to the kind of man who only possesses one pair of work trousers. What interests Feaver more than telling us the story, is explaining how ordinary life works. Sex and class hold no fears for her.

In the opening story, "The Mayor of Buckleigh", Barry, the local mayor, finds himself involved with Debbie, a single-mother from London. Simultaneously panicked and bowled-over by her city-bred ways, he falls back on gentleness as his winning card. Like most of the men in the book he's fixated by breasts ("two soft birds, each with its blister of an eye"), but spends more time warming his fantasies than the real thing. Debbie, like most of the women in the book, is forced to take the romantic lead, but at the critical moment finds herself staring "straight into space, through the ceiling, through the roof."

In the restricted boundaries of a short story there's nowhere to hide, and Feaver understands how to shift the mood of a piece in the turn of a phrase or a casual cruelty. In the most dramatic story in the book, "Dancing on a Pin", Irene, the barmaid from the Red Lion, stumbles back to her caravan on legs "as stiff as a table".

When the local farmer knocks on the door in the middle of the night, there are no words or explanations, just "a dovetailing of limbs assembled almost instantly." Outside his wife circles the rocking love-nest with a can of petrol. Like Helen Simpson and Tessa Hadley, to whom her work favourably compares, Feaver shares a subversive streak that gives even her gloomier stories a comic undertow. Distinguishing her stories, however, is a home-grown pastoralism that is more poetic in origin. Her characters' emotional lives may be precarious, but the unlovely countryside and bad weather outside is reassuringly solid. Feaver is too good a writer to let us linger on pretty things.