Ten Stories About Smoking, By Stuart Evers

A collection that lights up with life
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The Independent Culture

If I were a nicotine junkie, the cigarette-box packaging would be enough to cause anticipatory Pavlovian drooling.

But this debut collection of stories is no celebration of hedonistic vice. It is peopled by outsiders – interlopers hovering on the edge of society, love, happiness and life – and the stories brim with yearning; as tinged by regret as the fingers of smokers are stained by nicotine.

In "Some Great Project", overlook the halitosis of tacky Bermuda, throbbing with cacophony, and the sea breeze of melancholy sighs through: a couple dancing on their 60th anniversary; a man tortured by the past. Stuart Evers avoids the stridency of primary colours and resolute strokes of oils, opting instead for smudgy watercolours blotted with hazy loss and misty memories.

In "The Final Cigarette", Ray, who is dying of cancer, imagines he is in Reno, recently married, soon to be mourned by his devastated son, daughter and ex. Actually, his ex hates him, his daughter hasn't been in touch for a decade and his son can count on the wings of a plane the number of times his dad bought him an ice-cream as a kid. Selectiveness of memory, the human ability to rewrite history and our capacity for self-delusion are nakedly displayed.

Memory, faulty or tormenting, and its twin reflections, idealisation and demonisation, feature often. "Real Work" and "What's in Swindon?" are about individuals in love with their impressionistic view of others; all flaws photoshopped out. Conversely, in "Eclipse" a woman is paranoid and risks destroying something precious.

Evers avoids cliché, illuminating tales with sparks of surprise. In "Things Seem ..." an anorexic's neighbour bangs on the door when deafening music is played: it's not to complain but to savour jointly Ella Fitzgerald. The protagonist's ambitions aren't thwarted by wealthy relatives, but by – well, that would be telling.

Evers's writing is sequined with sparkling descriptions, usually of urban settings or human foibles: a Las Vegas sky is "pricked with stars and spilled light from far-off casinos"; a man imagines he's left his malignancy "back ... home, like a difficult, truculent teenager". Rare lapses – a tired juxtaposition of hardcore porn and death is hailed as art; a man refers to his niece's attacker as "that gangbanger"; the tenuous links to smoking in "Eclipse" and "Lou Lou" – are easily overlooked because of the tales' haunting potency: smoke gets in your heart.

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