BOOK REVIEW / In the Dying Room with the hairdresser: Spoilt - Georgina Hammick: Chatto & Windus pounds 12.99

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SPOILT is Georgina Hammick's second collection of short stories, and it easily maintains the high standard of its predecessor, even if the order in which the stories appear seems, at first, to be downright perverse.

The book begins with two rather weak stories: 'Maeve Goes to Town' is a familiar loneliness-of-the-long-suffering-

mother story; 'The American Dream', though written in an appealing mid-Atlantic style utterly suited to its subject, attempts too much and fails, in the end, to deliver what it promises.

It would be a distortion to say that these stories are bad, but neither are they remarkable. The third story in Spoilt, however, satisfies the most exacting criteria. 'Uncle Victor' is a child's view of the black sheep of the family, their father's eponymous, hidden, and therefore glamorous brother. But when their father dies, Uncle Victor turns up for the funeral - and he turns out to be drab, which is bad enough; much worse is the discovery that the unglamorous Uncle Victor does share something with their father after all.

'Habits' is almost as good, a longish depiction of failed aspirations and a failing marriage. Georgina Hammick has a happy knack of finding bathos in ordinary events, and the ending of this tale is as anticlimactic and excruciating as life.

Excruciating in a different way is 'Lying Doggo'. An author's dog describes her life and her mistress. This reviewer ended up wanting to put down both the story and the dog.

Yet from this point on the stories are of a very high standard. 'The Wheelchair Tennis Match' - the title, an offstage incident, is a symbol of hope's triumph over adversity - is a long, involved tale. The description of a mother's anxiety as she waits for her grown-up daughter's late arrival is masterly, though elsewhere in the story there are too many shifts of emphasis. Despite what Kingsley Amis once said, a story is not a novel compressed, nor a novel a short story expanded. A short story must be tight, efficient, and focused; a novel can afford to be more leisurely. Attempting to be comprehensive Hammick sometimes loses the focus in 'The Wheelchair Tennis Match': the suggestion that the husband has a 'dark secret' seems both contrived and gossipy.

It also seems rather familiar. Alan Bennett, introducing the Talking Heads scripts, wrote that he was a little alarmed to find so many trendy vicars, fashionable disparagements of social workers, and suggestions of incest in his work. Hammick follows suit in 'High Teas', in which a High Churchwoman called Mrs Peverill skirmishes regularly with Tony the trendy vicar. It is short and neat, and the relationship between the two characters is subtly charted.

The most subtle and moving story is 'The Dying Room'. The title comes from the son's suggestion that 'drawing room' is a pompous, middle-class and out-of- date nomenclature; the mother's response, a desription of her husband's death, is unembellished and powerful.

Finally, we come to the title story, which uncharacteristically charts not the fading gentility of an impoverished middle class but a livelier world of Job Centres and mobile hairdressers. The dissection of the cheating husband is as plausible as it is cynical.

As a volume, then, Spoilt is uneven, though the good outweighs the ordinary by some way. This is perhaps less a criticism of Hammick than of the way short stories are published and circulated. Raymond Carver claimed that, because our attention spans have been shortened by television, there has never been a better time to read - and write - short stories. British writers would probably disagree. The natural home for a short story is a magazine, yet in this country there is a paucity of such magazines. The writing of short stories can sometimes feel, in this context, like self-indulgence. But it is good that there are still writers such as Georgina Hammick who, though largely unencouraged, are prepared to persevere.

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