In her latest collection, That Bad Woman, Clare Boylan scores every one a winner - almost. The three exceptions out of a total of 15 stand out all the more precisely because the other 12 are so good. One of the duds is a thinly-disguised and feeble piss-take of Barbara Cartland, which makes one nearly sorry for the "daft old bat", an achievement indeed. A ruthless hackette goes to interview "Arabella Cartwheel" with the sole intention of "climbing so far up her nose that the old lady would tell her to ... off." While the whole story strives to be funny, it is just plain silly. This is a pity, because Boylan is actually funny, as she amply proves in the title story, among others.
Where she is not satirising a woman who is surely beyond satire, where she's not having UFOs and children from Mars visiting lonely widows, and where she's not pretending to be Charlotte Bronte in "The Secret Diary of Mrs Rochester", Boylan is sharp, and witty, and irresistibly brilliant about men. A second husband in one story takes his beautiful young wife in his arms when she tells him she's "late". "This is hell, he thought," but then, "There was a fainting stirring of optimism. They had been given a remission: nine months' worry-free fucking."
Elsewhere, the young lover of an older, married woman called Camilla manages "to suck all the steel out of her body and leave behind only accessible flesh. Employing his array of compliments he had filleted her." It is this same turquoise-eyed lover who later declares, "Darling, I've never felt this way before." Talking about marriage, he is "transformed by tenderness." We feel Camilla at this moment is herself transformed by the excitement of illicit anticipation. "Congratulate me, darling," he then adds. "Her name is Heather." It is a wonderfully excruciating moment, compounded by the despicable explanation of his which follows. " 'I picked you with great care,' he exulted. 'It had to be someone whose life was totally fulfilled. Otherwise I would have felt a shit.' "
And you want to exclaim, yes, this is what Boylan's about, this is her strength, for it is only a brave, courageous, and perceptive writer who can pull this off, this character, this moment. In lesser hands, it would be completely implausible. Male readers would scoff that no man would behave like that; even female ones might wonder if shits can really be that callous. But Boylan makes you so sure of it, you think, indeed they can; indeed, in real life, they so often do.
It is to be hoped that men will read and appreciate this collection as much as women will surely do. It is also to be hoped that they enjoy Boylan's clever observations of women and men alike, from the childless lady who steals a baby from outside a supermarket, (Boylan is excellent on the scratchy suspicion and tacit competition between women who have children and those who don't); to the old comedian who vaguely battles with his conscience when a plain Lolita figure attaches herself to him because she wants to get into show business. Male readers might even, unlike me, relish the UFOs.