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Review: Black Vodka, By Deborah Levy

Hard-hitting love stories that don't pull punches

Is it tougher to write a short story than a novel? The form dictates compression: there is no time for character development or leisurely plotting. Last year Deborah Levy showed she is a top-hitting novelist  with  a Man Booker Prize shortlist place for Swimming Home. Can she conquer the genre which demands she fashion perfect jewels?

These ten disparate narratives are united by the subject of love. In “Stardust Nation”, Thomas – a successful copywriter – is sucked into his friend Nick’s life. Nick has a gift (or a curse): an over-developed sense of empathy. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, he mirrors whoever he sees. Thomas was beaten as a child; Nick feels the bruises. Levy cleverly probes more than transference here. She suggests that there is a  collusion between the”’mad” and the “sane”.

Many of her dramas centre on displaced Europeans. In “Roma” Levy writes about infidelity with wit and pain. A wife dreams of her husband’s affair with another: “When she wakes from this dream, the traitor is lying by her side.” The story focuses on the power of the subconscious to tell us the truth.

Most disturbing is the way Levy writes from the inside out. It is rare for her to give a description of someone’s body except when central to plot. “Ali” has a spinal deformity. He wants sex with Lisa, who is a colleague’s girlfriend. Lisa is not horrified by his physique; rather, her attraction is a mixture of the clinical and the curious. She draws him naked and admits she wants to touch his hump. The dynamic between the able-bodied and the disabled is explored in an original way.

Levy’s interest in the corporeal goes even further with “Cave Girl”. Told in the voice of an adolescent in love with his sister, it crosses taboo themes of incestuous desire with radical plastic surgery. “Cass told me her secret. She said she wants a sex change. ‘What into a man?’ ‘No, into a woman.’ ‘But you are a woman.’ ‘I want to be another kind of woman.’” Haunting and shocking, Levy’s  ironic feminist study observes manipulation, pressure and conformity without judgment or moralising. As for the perfection needed for the genre; yes, Levy can do macro-and microcosm. These tales of unconventional love reinforce her reputation as a major contemporary writer who never pulls her punches.

Julia Pascal’s play ’Nineveh’ opens at Riverside Studios on 16 April

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