The Separate Heart, By Simon Robson

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

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones