Perfect Lives, By Polly Samson
All is not as it seems in this dazzling collection
Sunday 28 November 2010
It is conceivable that the theme of Polly Samson's brilliant latest collection was dreamt up only to leaven readers' jealousy on seeing her adoring acknowledgement to her rock legend husband David Gilmour, "without whose support and encouragement" etc etc. The stories here are about the cracks behind the façade of the perfect life: the secrets, lies and bitter compromises that eat away at apparently blissful marriages in enormous stuccoed houses in picturebook seaside towns.
The stories are linked by characters, locations and, in one case, "the loveliest yellow cotton dress, the belt [like] a daisy chain". In each one, deception gnaws from the inside like a canker in a blossom. A chance revelation at a birthday party stays lodged in a marriage. A discarded wife can't get up in the mornings for "the great weight of her soul pressing on her chest as soon as she opened her eyes, so heavy, she said, it felt like it had been ripped from her in the night and plonked there, filled with rubble". That physical, acid sensation of feeling wronged is frequently and beautifully evoked, with foodie metaphors deliciously distorted and played with.
In "A Regular Cherub", a particularly striking story, Tilda is trapped in a countryside idyll with the unspeakable secret that she does not love her baby. She thought that she would, but trying to force it is "like willing a dream", and he only reminded her of a Christmas gammon when he was born. "Her breast [was] grappled with like something to be stuffed into the cavity of a chicken," she recalls. "[The midwife] brought green cabbage leaves when Tilda was so inflamed that her breasts looked like two monstrous gorgonzolas, cornflower for her nipples and, on Fridays, iced buns for Callum... Tilda began to feel that she belonged in the dairy."
Characters transplanted into each others' stories shed fresh light on what we have seen before. Tilda's sister, Anna, is a beautiful artist to her smitten piano tuner in "Barcarolle"; in "The Rose Before the Vine" she is a torment in the judgement of her mother, Rose, who in turn feels judged by her. Anna thinks that Rose remarried too soon after her father died. The plasterwork on Anna's seaside house reminds Rose "of her first wedding cake, the one she'd cut with Jimmy, a struggle to get the knife through the cold white icing, three tiers".
Hardly anything is as it seems. Someone described as if he is a lover turns out to be a father, or indeed a camera. And perfection is not what it's cracked up to be, either. The final story, "Remote Control", predicts catastrophe and sadness all the way through, but concludes, hopefully: "It wasn't perfect, but it would do." I hesitate to call Samson's collection perfect, then. It isn't perfect; but it's all the better for that.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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