Bloomsbury £14.99

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, By Jon McGregor

Between the lines of beauty

Jon McGregor's writing combines dreamy, ethereal poetry with a northern sensibility unafraid to confront devastating truths.

This is his first volume of short stories, and each plunges the reader into highly charged situations that ensnare our attention. A false intimacy is created between us and the often unnamed characters: we suddenly care about these people.

McGregor is adept at depicting emotions with unassuming language. These emotions are often complex, as in "Wires", in which the shocked survivor of a calamitous event plans the dumping of her controlling boyfriend before paradoxically craving his concern. Feelings may be evanescent: "We Wave and Call" shows joy rapidly dissipating, chased by fear.

In one of the strongest stories in the collection, "In Winter the Sky", alternate pages consist of poetry fresh from a character's head, complete with deletions and bursts of personal thoughts. The poetry is lovely, full of the landscape of the Fens: huge open skies, light and floods. But the terrible images that gatecrash this calm beauty tell of a devastating secret between the poet and her husband. Some trauma has occurred for which each imagines the other's silent recrimination

McGregor often says as much in the undercurrent as in his prose. In "She Was Looking For This Coat", a girl's distress instils dread in us long before its cause is apparent. This way of revealing without overtly stating is also apparent in the tragicomic "Looking Up Vagina": it is only in the unwritten subtext that we find a friendless bullied child.

Two stories touch on the grief of men kept apart from their children. In "If it Keeps on Raining", for example, a man plans for the floods he envisages. Splintered memories and morbid fantasies penetrate his thoughts; the image of a fishing net lost by his uncaring father segues into that of an instrument with which he imagines saving his children from a swollen river.

Destruction and mortality loom over This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. "Supplementary Notes ..." and "The Last Ditch" anticipate war, and their disturbing chill is exacerbated by the emotionless language of official documentation. "What Happened to Mr Davison" is another typically understated affair in which a narrator tries to justify an action that resulted in tragedy.

But there is also humour. In the droll "The Chicken, the Egg", a man unwisely confides a phobia to his girlfriend. "I'll Buy You a Shovel" combines threat with mirth: an idle labourer duo skive while bombs fall on the sands. The delicious "Which Reminded Her Later" involves a vicar's wife simmering with resentment at the liberties taken by a stranger who has manipulated her way into staying. The comical nature in which fury cracks the barriers restraining her irritation is beautifully conveyed.

Like the factory chimneys polluting fragile flowers on the cover, these tales juxtapose beauty and ugliness. They are unsettling, haunting and brilliant.

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