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You Have 24 Hours to Love Us, By Guy Ware. Comma Press, £7.95


You Have 24 Hours to Love Us is an awkward and slightly ungainly title for a collection of stories: a military-style imperative, underpinned by threat, yet softened by emotional desperation.

 It is perfect as an encapsulation of Guy Ware's concerns and style in his debut collection. In Ware's fiction, the outside world, outside society, outside agencies, are the "us" bearing down on the "you". Characters are isolated until their own shaky identity is corrupted and challenged. Ware asks how we can hold onto ourselves when what happens without is so random and fraught with possibility.

"Do I know You?" compresses this tension into a psychosexual drama of chance, invention and casual cruelty. A woman asks a man if his name is Joe. He says he could be. They go for a drink, then to her place. What ensues is a game of imaginative brinkmanship over many days: they create possible narratives, both adopting personas, both forcing personas on the other. It is an unsettling and brilliantly-controlled story that recalls early Paul Auster in its tricksy complexity. It is the stand-out story in a collection that while thematically cohesive, can be variable.

Many of the stories are clever, sustained and engaging fictions that toy with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. In simple, nuanced, sometimes almost elliptical sentences, Ware builds convincing worlds where superpowers are offended by humble chicken farmers ("In Plain Sight"), a key witness in a murder is given a new family and identity ("Witness Protection"), and an artist is asked to sculpt the bust of a minister who may have been responsible for the disappearance of his best friend ("Staying Put"). But while these narratives may convince, others feel less fleshed out than they should be.

Even in the best stories there are wrong notes, cracked sentences, moments of confusion, that can undermine the fluency of Ware's fiction. These missteps are frustrating but do not wholly detract from a daring and refreshing collection.