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Review: Black Vodka, By Deborah Levy

Tears on the pillow, pain in the heart

Deborah Levy's latest collection of short stories explores themes of love, loss, and betrayal as well as the small cruelties that play out in modern day lives. The title story is a contemporary take on Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Levy's hunchback works in advertising and is launching a new brand of vodka when he meets his colleague's archaeologist girlfriend. She finds his deformity irresistible and the two hit it off over a vodka-fuelled dinner at the Polish Club in South Kensington. They may not have a future together but "the promise of love" unsettles the ad man and he repeatedly dreams about a hunchbacked soldier travelling from Warsaw to Southend-on-Sea: "When I wake up there are always tears on my cheeks, transparent as vodka but warm as rain."

Love, Levy's fictions suggest, is mystifying, at worst illusive. Many of her elegantly conceived and executed stories describe break-ups or fleeting encounters. She is a skilled wordsmith and creates an array of intense emotions and moods in precise, controlled prose. In "Placing a Call", she paints a devastating portrait of loss in just a few brushstrokes: "I am looking into your eyes and I can't get in. You have changed the locks and I have an old key."

Another example of this economical use of language comes in "Vienna". Levy reminds us that globalisation brings new challenges to do with identity and the ability to connect. An unnamed divorcee from Zurich, whose native tongue is Russian, enjoys perfunctory sex with Magret. He does not know where she is from, only that she is married to an Italian. He defines her in terms of place – first as "Middle Europe" then as "Vienna" – before employing a string of metaphors to describe her unfamiliarity: "a silver teaspoon, a strudel dusted with white icing sugar … the sound of polite applause … a chandelier."

The collision of different cultures is a recurrent theme. In "Pillow Talk", a London-based Czech man attends a job interview in Dublin and betrays his Jamaican girlfriend. Later, she tells him "I want you to be someone else … kind and wise … attentive to me and faithful for ever." He responds that he is not. And yet it is their essential fear about belonging that bonds them. When travelling together, "their hearts beat a little faster", thinking they might have to explain where there are from: "'A bit from here, a bit from there.' Would this be enough?"

There is a dreamlike quality to many of Levy's stories and some descend into nightmare. In "Roma", a woman has a premonition that her husband is leaving her and dreams vividly of the break-up before her worst fears are realised. In "Stardust", a man begins to believe that he has lived his colleague's traumatic childhood. He absorbs his angst, becomes increasingly delusional, and finally is hospitalised. Other stories prove unintentionally topical. One character recalls eating horse steaks in Paris: "It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century."