Rural tips from the backwoods

BY MAGGIE TRAUGOTT HEART SONGS by E Annie Proulx, 4th Estate £13.99
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EVERYONE is following scent in Proulx country. And a surprising number of characters are out for revenge. One septuagenarian poisons his childhood rival just to keep him off the hill at the opening of deer season, while another man believes himself locked into a land feud with opponents from beyond the grave. This is craggy backwoods terrain where rich people build glass houses at their peril and grudges are for life.

Those who know the joys of E Annie Proulx's The Shipping News should be prepared for something a bit starker and more contemplative in these 11 stories. Though the same ravishing sense of nature is in place, there just isn't the space in a story to drum up such a degree of sympathetic involvement and conspiratorial mirth as the life and shipping time of Quoyle commanded.

Proulx here leans more on irony than plot - along with the unfolding variations on the theme of the hunt. An earnest townee yearns for the skills to shoot partridge "even if it takes years", while his reluctant mentor shakes his head, knowing he has "the reflexes of a snowman" and that anyway "you didn't aim at the bird, you just threw up the gun and fired in the right place". And the hunting is not only for deer and partridge. In the title story, protagonist Snipe recognises in himself a secret wish to step off into some abyss of bad taste and moral sloth so he joins the musical nights of a family of "down and dirty" rednecks and finds himself dangerously out of tune.

The distinguishing ingredient that makes Proulx such a tonic is her passion for language. She sets strange rural morsels in her trap to ensnare the reader's curiosity. In the book's very first sentence we read: "Hawkheel's face was as finely wrinkled as grass-dried linen." What is this arcane laundry tip? What is the taste of chokecherry jelly? Have you ever smelt "the mournful odor of trodden cloves" or seen a "mayonnaise blonde"? Even if she does offer up a clich (I spotted only one) it comes as such a shock, it has the opposite effect.

Here is a descriptive skill both intriguing and economical. Of one mother, who looks "like Charles Laughton in a flowered wrapper" (graphic enough to be getting on with) we learn "her white hair was rumpled like a cloud torn by wind and her eyes the common pastel of greeting- card rabbits". The what? This is the sort of comment that gets me loitering round a Hallmark stand without quite remembering why. And it is amazing that, except for a very occasional logjam of similes, Proulx doesn't overdo her energetic word play.

Yet it does make the stories somewhat demanding and, without the luxury of a novel-length's intimacy with characters (however magically she can conjure up a quick grotesque) the stories do not perhaps offer such an accessible escape route, from the city or anywhere, as The Shipping News. I recently saw two people on the tube, sitting next to each other but getting off at different stops, who were both reading The Shipping News. One was smirking, one was thoughtful, both were engrossed. Heart Songs is a book better suited to reading at times when you can treat yourself to a slice of isolation (perhaps the experimental tread on a few cloves?) just to let E Annie Proulx fill a piece of silence with this familiar, but curiously new language of hers.