On a knife-edge

NOT HER REAL NAME by Emily Perkins Picador pounds 5.99
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The Independent Culture
Publishers continually herald the debut of a fresh new voice that will clear away old static and allow us to retune to life anew. Generally, these newcomers hum a few bars and, although it might sound fresh, stylish or quirky, a familiar refrain or currently fashionable theme soon creeps in.

Debilitating self-consciousness is always a winner. You can't go wrong by disarming your readers with characters more neurotic than they are likely to be themselves. The Nineties reader loves a loser, whether obsessed with football, lost loves or battles of willpower. Sex is always lurking, though the embarrassed, perfunctory performance-pieces of the Eighties seem to be less in evidence - at least in literary fiction.

In her vivid first collection of short stories Emily Perkins does her share of sniffing around the prevailing trends, but there is something pellucid, singular and convincing about the uneasy personalities she drums up and investigates, so that her book attains a bracing air of originality.

The stories are generally set somewhere in New Zealand, on a knife-edge. Characters teeter between control and mayhem, normality and freakdom. Waitresses, drama students or dole-collectors become enthralled at how abandonment by a lover, bereavement or just plain misplaced sexual obsession can render them unrecognisable to themselves. An anorexic (who convincingly introduces herself as a fat girl) takes to shadowing her ribs for "a nice bird cage effect" and ultimately walks to the labour exchange in the nude. A woman, disgusted after an expense-account bonk with her married boss, turns car thief.

When not hiding from themselves, the characters may well be disguising their true nature from other people: in the final story a woman lures a man with an inscrutable deep-voiced-vamp act so alien to herself that she is afraid to introduce him to her friends in case they blow her cover. Shyness strikes deep and ties tongues: characters frequently bolt, scarper or long for lift-off. But it is not just caricature of the dysfunctional that is the key to Emily Perkins, but a keen recognition of the wilfully tragic - not to mention an unusually fine ear for the comic.

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