The Atmospheric Railway, By Shena Mackay

Some real magic – and fake mistletoe
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The Independent Culture

In Shena Mackay's lush, entrancing tales, people are never quite who they seem to be. In this collection of new and selected stories, a long-disappeared illusionist with an embroidered bolero and ornamental dagger emerges from the sea to revenge himself on the lover who betrayed him; a woman can turn into a ferocious goat to pursue the professor whose lecture she attends; a tenderly remembered first lover encountered in a charity shop reveals a hairy face, a burgeoning belly and a sweater flecked with crumbs.

Not for Mackay the depleted economy of the contemporary short story. Her colourful, tactile prose dips into the well of the wonder tale and familiar pop music. In the mind's theatre she delights in creating, landscapes suddenly shift and become surreal: a tsunami arrives in a suburban garden, bringing the entire population of a caravan site; a white sledge, drawn by white llamas, speeds down snowy lanes. And in one of the loveliest of her fables, "Nay, Ivy, Nay", Mackay combines her flawless ear for the language and images of ancient carol and fairy tale with an eye that sees the tawdriness of perspex icicles and artificial mistletoe, in a Christmas story of a woman who takes a box of mince pies to a crusty neighbour in exchange for a sprig of white holly he refuses.

Summaries do such tales little justice. The art of many stories, musically written and dense with colours, is in the exultant telling; some are written to be read aloud, in this case for radio. Mackay's two fine previous volumes, The Laughing Academy and The World's Smallest Unicorn, appeared between lauded novels. A previous Collected Stories was published in the mid-1990s. Mackay was at her best with the difficult form of the long short story, evoking in about 15 pages the range of a novella.

Though several of the 13 new stories (added to 23 others) here are very brief, Mackay brings all the irreverence and lyricism of her longer fictions to them. Brevity of this sort can demand a compression akin to poetry. It's perhaps most obvious in "Wasp's Nest": a daughter's foray into her father's insect-infested house turns into an understated reflection on death and survival. Often savage and even cruel, like the best fairy tales, these stories can also be rueful and tender. The bright images can be exchanged for the poignance of the seemingly insignificant.

In "Jumbo takes a Bath", a random blind date is transformed into an oddly promising occasion by a moment of kindness to a wounded animal. In "Windfalls", an ageing man in charge of a naughty grandson reflects on war, history and changing mores before he turns the energetic child and his sister's attention to baking an apple pie. The gift is not appreciated by his exhausted daughter-in-law, who sees only a messy kitchen.

Old age and loneliness often feature, particularly in those longer stories in which Mackay moves fluidly between past and present, memory and reality. The young – or quite young – are lonely too. "The Heart of Saturday Night" finds a drunk, 38-year-old teacher of creative writing "astride an ostrich on a stationary carousel on a deserted campus", reflecting on life, love and his current girlfriend, the feather-haired crime writer Rosella, who has not only left him alone with a pair of wasted circus tickets but also "stolen his profession and his past. Turning her hand to poetry between novels, she had published a book of verse. Whereas Alex's poems had made little impression, particularly on his family, Rosella's Turkeys in Tinsel was a Poetry Book Society Choice."

Mackay is particularly good at marginalised men at all stages of their lives, but especially perceptive about the empty spaces proferred by retirement. In the title story, Neville travels home from the house of Beryl – the cousin with whom he has been discussing a chapter of family history that touches on the long-vanished railway – to his waiting wife. But his own journey of memories is disturbed by murderous feeling for a fellow-passenger's wailing infant in a backwards-moving train. The bizarre and the banal, the half-remembered and the yet-to-come, brilliantly intertwine in the sentences of this most imaginative yet most practical of writers.

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