The Separate Heart, By Simon Robson

An actor's training helps one writer bring drama to his debut collection of stories
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The Independent Culture

This muscular collection of stories is a terrific debut. Most of Simon Robson's 10 fictions are satisfyingly into the 35-page range, offering a succinctly developed narrative with emotional depth in place of the more usual vignettes, sketches or bizarre interludes which often pass for short stories. None of these claim any prior publishing history. Given the quality of his work, this is either coy or staggeringly unadventurous. If Robson (right) is indeed dropping an immaculate collection upon us we should simply be grateful, for his style is witty and confident, while his robust and engaging tales are mapped out with perspicacity, exuberance and a deftly summoned delicacy of feeling. The many British readers who habitually pass over short fiction should dip into The Separate Heart for a refreshing draught of how punchy and intoxicating a well-crafted tale can be.

Open your heart, Robson entreats, concluding most of his tales with a salvaged, life-changing moment of acute self-awareness. How actions inadvertently exploit or impact profoundly on relationships is a prevailing theme that gives this collection a cohesiveness. A boy's ungracious behaviour towards an unhappy lad foisted on him for a day of fishing leaves the boy stewing in his own ungenerosity, while the title story explores the complicities and betrayals of a neighbour's gradual penetration into the domestic bliss of a newly married couple. "The Observatory by Daylight" conjures an unlikely adolescent excitement between the quadriplegic son of a master and an arrogant public schoolboy willing to barter a blow-job from his girlfriend for a sneak preview of exam questions.

Besides fully-formed plotting, Robson's atmospheric descriptions and tactile metaphors effortlessly shoulder an emotional freight. "Emanuel pursed his lips as if preparing a berth for the approaching cigarette and watched her as she troubled the seal of the envelope as clumsily as a schoolgirl with a first valentine." This silent exchange between an octogenarian aristocrat and a family retainer compresses his patience into her nervous anticipation in a manner of essential observation often repeated through Robson's narratives. Intense exchanges rarely lack wit, but few lines are better for me than "it undoes the brassière of Anglicanism..." , which Robson manages to work into his tale of a documentary-maker's moral whiplash after unwittingly exploiting a homeless person.

British short fiction has been saddled with disrespect because too many established writers churn out mediocre collections as cavity filler between novels. Robson stands with the likes of Adam Thorpe, Helen Simpson and Jeremy Dyson as a writer crafting distinctive and excellent stories. They are devoid of modernist trickery, but Robson also avoids condescension and sentimentality. His Rada training and theatre heritage help him pull off both life and drama with brio; the few occasional forays beyond intense meditation into more numinous philosophical digressions prove slightly less certain territory for him.

Robson has appetite enough to engage with the medium itself. "The Critic " is a deliciously tart ménage à trois revolving around an obituary that, in passing, takes a humbling swipe at the critical process. This sets high expectations for the closing story, "The Last Word" , which offers a pseudo-fictional gloss on some of the previous stories. Robson pricks his protagonist, and the reader, with a sting in the tail that combines unpretentious metafiction with good old-fashioned story-telling.