The Not-Dead and the Saved and Other Stories by Kate Clanchy, book review

Clanchy's first collection of short stories seethes with sick parents and tough-minded children

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The Independent Culture

Ever since Virginia Woolf wrote her famous essay on why the domestic is considered less important as a subject for literature than war, contemporary women writers have been busy reclaiming it.

Authors from Maggie O'Farrell to Rachel Cusk and Polly Samson have mined the home front for truth, humour and high drama, and Kate Clanchy is so at ease with this trope that her characters are almost always mothers, children and domestic helps of some kind. Homes are not innocent of love, hate, literature, war and peace, as her novels, poem and this first collection of short stories testify.

The title story, The Not-Dead and the Saved, won both the 2009 VS Pritchett Award and the BBC National Short Story Prize. "The Mother" battles to keep "the Son" alive despite the tumour in his brain. As he traverses from paediatrics to hospice, and from childhood to fatherhood, their relationship is delineated with mordant irony, the adolescent boy who observes and analyses becoming one who loses memory and the ability to speak or swallow. As in Lorrie Moore's story about a sick child, People Like That Are the Only People Here, one is wary of a response predicated on pathos – but Clanchy's best work, its title echoing Primo Levi's book on the Holocaust, reminds us how universal this story is. Only when the Son dies do we learn the protagonists' individual names.

The collection seethes with sick parents and tough-minded children, from Aunt Mirrie and the Child, a Sparkian story about social advancement through an Edinburgh education in The Invention of Scotland, to the enviable friend in Animal, Vegetable whose charmed life as a career-woman may be derailed by an apparently perfect daughter. Here are female relationships in all their envy, jealousy, anger, ambition and fear, beating against the stark simplicity of maternal sacrifice. Clanchy uses free indirect speech and consistently omits speech marks, giving her tales the uneasy comedy of internal monologue. The prevailing mood is gloom, mitigated by wit and energy. It's a relief to find a story as straightforwardly funny as Brunty Country, in which a patronising media-savvy agent encounters Charlotte and Emily Brontë and fails to recognise the genius hidden in a "five-foot figure in a Laura Ashley nightie… and a grey little goblin face."

What she really wants when looking for writers, the agent tells us, is "warm, handsome, presentable, telly-friendly, non-abusive… I want Patrick Gale. Every time." It's no disrespect to Gale to say that this reader is glad of the author's prickliness, her poet's precision of language and her deceptively narrow domesticity.

Amanda Craig's novels include 'A Vicious Circle' and 'Hearts and Minds' (both Abacus, £8.99)