Amy Bloom's third book of stories (she has also written two the critically-acclaimed novels and a work of non-fiction exploring gender and sexuality) contains two sets of four linked tales and four that stand alone. It's a neatly-organised collection, the four, two, four, two pattern imposing order on the messy, uncontrollable subject matter. The two sequences, in particular, turn on acts of love that disrupt microcosmic social orders.
In the first, two academics, William (obese and unwell) and Clare (thin and spiky), are married to other, more attractive, people. They start an affair that wrecks a long friendship between the two couples. In the second, Julia and Lionel, mutually loving stepmother and 19-year-old stepson, have impulsive sex while grieving for her husband, his father. Afterwards, overcome with guilt and convinced she's ruined his life, Julia sends Lionel away.
There's lots of death and illness in these stories, which spotlight both the close relationship between Eros and Thanatos – wherever Bloom's God of Love hangs out, the reaper's close by – and the fact that shit happens. Nonetheless, life goes on: even for the comatose girl in "Permafrost", who has contracted necrotising fasciitis and lost a leg. One of the joys of these stories is that while sadness invariably endures, misery, depression and the inability to enjoy anything else, generally don't. Except, that is, for the best friend of a murdered girl in the penultimate story, "By-and-by", who reports her friend's murder in forensic detail, then concludes with a heart-wrenching soliloquy that "I don't miss the dead less, I miss them more".
Bloom's writing excels in two areas: first, in the way her lovingly-crafted protagonists, particularly those in first sequence, feel so real. This she achieves partly by letting us eavesdrop on others' opinions. So we learn that behind each other's backs, Clare and her husband Charles call William's wife Isabel, "The Governess", Isabel and Clare call William "The Last Emperor", and William and Charles call Clare "The Cactus" - names which conjure precise images. We overhear the characters in the Lionel and Julia sequence discussing each other's love lives and partners. It's the literary equivalent of stereo recording or holography.
Then there's her dark, impish wit, sharp as the tip of Cupid's arrow. Amid all the death, troubles and agonising, Bloom sneaks in plenty of unexpected and, often, slightly wicked laughs.
During a hiatus in their affair, William visits Clare, who has sprained her ankle. Clare's uncle is also present, recuperating from a bypass op. William finds he can't be honest about his feelings "while she's lying there like the little match girl, and... her uncle David sits before them like a cross between Cerberus and Mel Brooks".
This rich mix of loves, sex, death, humour (and, for some reason, lots of bacon) makes for a profoundly satisfying read. The short story form enhances the pleasure; like savouring a selection of artisanal chocolates instead of guzzling an economy bar of Fruit & Nut.
Lisa Gee's 'Stage Mum' is published by Hutchinson