That inside-out way of seeing

THE VANISHING PRINCESS by Jenny Diski, Weidenfeld pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
THE Diski voice is a dry smile at dreams of life coming right. The woman in these stories (all the protagonists are women) who gets things really right is obsessively jealous, happy only when her lover is obviously unfaithful. That's the tone. As in Diski's novels, domesticity is trumped by a bizarrely inside-out way of seeing.

Living the bizarre is safer, if you can manage it. A perfectly sane teenager, doomed to endless foxtrots in mental hospital, has been unhappy enough to know this is "asylum in the old, true sense of the word...by no means the worst she could imagine". In a tube-station crowd after a "leaper" (a suicide), a writer meets an elegant woman with whom she has great, surprised sex:

"I thought I had everything. Found, at last, the solution to the panic that threatened to swamp me. I remember the quality of that moment, even now. It was, I think, the first and only time I really felt everything was going to be all right."

Like all Diski bliss-dreams, this one implodes. The elegant stranger can't talk writing to a writer, although she tries: a crime of insensitivity which foreshadows the revelation of worse. Indeed, this insensitivity precipitated suicide: the "leaper" was the woman's lover. The writer scuttles back to the OK asylum of her own life.

"It might be worse." The message flickers through fairytale too. The miller's daughter seduces Rumpelstiltskin into spinning straw to gold. (Dwarves are more inventive lovers than kings.) Of two princesses in towers, one disappears in her image, incised by visitors on the glass; the other grows old, tranquilly unvisited.

"Towers", oldworld walls in which women self-box their lives, are Diski's target. Being "visited" mirrors the obsession, the extra guest in a life or mind, of other stories. The theme is the value of obsession reflected in the body's separate life, almost separate meaning. What does give ordinarily lived life meaning? Not much. Obsession: or the smile in the voice that records it.

Feminist re-allegorising is old hat by now. Diski's own narratives are richer than the fairytales. A mother teaches a 13-year-old about blow- jobs while making a mess of a joint. A housewife receives raw liver through the post from her anal lover. Marriage, divorce and parenthood over, a woman blows her capital on the perfect bathroom in a derelict house for "the best day of her life": Christmas Day alone in day-hot bathwater.

Diski is no longer just an interesting novelist; she's major. These stories have all the novels' inventiveness, quirkiness, humour and bitchy gallantry in the face of life's bitchiness. But I prefer that poised, profound imagination at work on big structure, chasing the echoes and shadows. More novels, please.

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