At a time when most publishers regard short stories as commercial suicide, the independent Tindal Street Press has championed the form. Gaynor Arnold's book is the latest in an adventurous line of anthologies and individual collections. Her first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, was long-listed for both the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Its strength lay in Arnold's ability to conjure up a complex past and to empathise with its characters; especially its novelist hero, modelled on Dickens.
The best stories in this book also deal with fractured relationships and a richly imagined past. It's a pity, therefore, that the collection begins with the over-long "Telling Radnor", told in a historic present tense that becomes monotonous. Come to "Looking for Leslie Howard" and it is as if another writer has taken charge. We are in the mind of Elsie, a poor shy waitress, dreaming of impossible romances with her film-star hero and smitten by a handsome and melancholy young man she serves. The atmosphere of a provincial hotel in the late 1930s is caught perfectly: one of the other waitresses leaves to marry "the encyclopedia salesman who'd always come in for a grilled plaice on Fridays". In "The Ginger Rogers of Bath and Wells", an elderly, crippled ex-dancer who keeps a lodging house for theatricals, bemoaning the lack of "glamour" in life and theatre, is given one final moment of glory.
These stories are full of humanity but entirely without sentimentality. Grimmer are the pair of stories "Mouth" and "Angel Child". They present Geraldine's tale, and then her mother's, of tragically diverging paths from angelic childhood into druggy adult life. Arnold is impressively capable of presenting a man's point of view in "Salad Days", where the state of a marriage is summed up by the "leathery green leaves... the beetroot bleeding into a hard-boiled egg" of the regular Friday-night salad that a bored wife serves to her drunken husband.
All books of stories are mixed bags. This one contains a couple of makeweights, but as a whole it is a beautifully written and deeply perceptive collection, perhaps at its best in "Room for Manoeuvre". A woman trying to make her own life in Paris finds herself demoted from the status of lover to the other woman in subtle and heartbreaking fashion.
William Palmer's book of short stories, 'Four Last Things', has been reissued by Faber Finds