Sunstroke, by Tessa Hadley

Stroking the silver with polish - and pain
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Publishers are increasingly nervous of short-story collections. If they can't persuade a novelist to deliver another novel, they package a collection to look as much like a novel as possible or, inspired by their own sense of daring at publishing material of such reduced commercial potential, use words like "risk" and "subversion" in the jacket copy. This collection, with which Tessa Hadley follows up her striking novels Accidents in the Home and Everything Will Be All Right, is no exception. "Somehow undomesticated and dangerous", its blurb-writer promises.

Which is to miss much of the point. It is precisely in her cool delineation of the domestic that much of Hadley's skill lies. As in her novels, the scenes she lays before us are packed with domesticity - with sulky children, handsome furniture, glasses, china, paintings, houses, husbands, stuff. One senses she likes it, and understands the risk to an intelligent woman in liking it too much. Describing the households through which her heroines move, her tone is like a hand smoothing out the last wrinkle in a perfect set of bed linen, or minutely adjusting the silver on a dinner table.

She registers its perfection even as she turns on it the scornful or envious eye of a visiting, less fortunate aunt. That she has written a book on that arch silver-stroker, Henry James, comes as no surprise.

Her stories show the influence of Elizabeth Bowen and Katherine Mansfield and, at several points, seem to make superstitious genuflections to them. These are essentially interior dramas, like Bowen's, and, like Mansfield's, her heroines seem to hold a carapace of solitude even when lolling on sofas with a best friend or kissing a best friend's would-be lover. These are watchful women, too well versed in pain and disappointment and the examples of both in great literature ever to be sedated by comfort or taken entirely unawares by the plots Hadley casts at them.

"The Enemy" packs what could have been the matter of a novel - sisterhood, marriages, relationships, betrayal, withered ethical standards and unfinished erotic business - into a scant 15 pages, and could be offered to Hadley's students as an illustration of just what concision can achieve. "Buckets of Blood" deliciously evokes a teenage horror of fecundity and its fruits - an ageing vicarage wife, heedless in slack underwear, and "urine pungent steam" rising from a nappy-laden twin-tub. "A Card Trick" brilliantly encapsulates the life and loves of a literature scholar in the two weeks of painful inhibition she was forced to spend among glamorous, dim acquaintance as a teenager.

Hadley's style is as discreet as good tailoring. She writes with an elegant assurance, like the women her heroines envy, and repeatedly pinpoints physical particulars - the beauty of a son's girlfriend, the scents of one's sleeping mother - with a technique so self-effacing that the image is in one's brain long before one can analyse how her words put it there. She is strong on the ambivalence of friendship, and the ways time betrays bright young mothers.

She has the good taste to avoid the crude narrative twist, bad sex or feminine revenge in favour of less dramatic climaxes of terrible insight: those glimpses of loveless age or bypassed fulfilment that make a woman die a little. For all the modish accessories and glimpses into Nigella-world, Sunstroke presents the comedy of pain recognised, not the belly laughs of chick-lit; perhaps Jean Rhys is really the dominant influence at work here.

Patrick Gale's latest novel is 'Friendly Fire' (Fourth Estate)