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The Independent Culture

by Lisa St Aubin de Tern,

Virago, pounds 9.99


EAST ANGLIA depressed her, Venezuela and Umbria inspired her. Lisa St Aubin de Tern is a writer who works better to the chirp of cicadas than Radio 4. She's also a writer whose own life has provided the raw material for much of her work - most exotically in her first novel Keepers of the House, which was drawn from her own experiences as a teenage bride and chatelaine of a Venezuelan sugar plantation.

Her latest collection includes stories from this period, some written over 25 years ago, like "Eladio and the boy" and "Zapa, the fire child", while the book's more recent entries describe life among the tobacco growers and truffle hunters of deepest Umbria - the author's current home. But this is not just a series of reheated left-overs: the collection contains some of St Aubin de Tern's most satisfying work to date.

The eponymous "southpaws" - prostitutes, peasants, orphans and cripples - live in the shanty towns licking at the heels of St Aubin's Hacienda Santa Rita. All survivors, their lives are circumscribed by the rules of their own particular patch: to break out is to risk retribution. In the story "The Spider's Web", a girl-child attaches herself to an ageing Madame, only to have her nails mutilated by the other girls in the brothel; in "Death of a Purist", the bastard son of a local landowner finds salvation in T S Eliot, but, pondering the great man's words, crashes into an oncoming truck.

A writer more inclined to fable than social realism, St Aubin de Tern's sensuous impulses find outlet in the Italian stories. Inspired by local gossip and characters from her own village, farmers and shop-keepers breathe the aroma of simmering stock and truffles, while standing knee-high in red geraniums, gazing at the stars.

The most compelling story in the collection, "Antonio Mezzanote", is the least fictional. Set in 1946, it recalls a village feast held to celebrate the safe return of the Partisans, and a tragic accident in the woods involving two young boys and an unexploded bomb.

An absorbing story teller, St Aubin finds other people's life stories even more enchanted than her own.