Dancing on the Outskirts by Shena Mackay, book review

Mackay's new collection of short stories showcases her genius for building comedy from terseness and compression

Michele Roberts
Thursday 19 November 2015 17:55
Precise, unsentimental images: Author Shena Mackay
Precise, unsentimental images: Author Shena Mackay

Shena Mackay's work has glittered from the start. Her early short novel Music Upstairs, published in the sixties, twisted the English language into a new, harsh poetry, sang an Earl's Court blues. Her later novels, such as The Nautilus, and The Artist's Wife, are playfully odd, warmly witty, succinct.

This new collection of short stories (some drawn from previous publications) showcases her genius for building comedy from terseness and compression. “Pigs in Blankets” mocks the smug middle-class incomers to a village simply through their house names: The Old Pharmacy and Herbarium, The Old Post Office, The Old Village Stores, The Old Forge. In “Pink Cigarettes”, Mackay pinpoints telling details, such as a teenage boy's bedroom floor littered with “exploded crisp bags” or the forced daffodils hanging “in dirty yellow tags of crepe paper” that the boy, Simon, has bought for his elderly mentor, a writer of “good bad” poems. The poet seems similarly used-up, empty and withered, dictating his Laurie Lee-like memoirs in wornout flowery prose. The bittersweet ending of the story folds back into its beginning, when Simon notes from a taxi window “two Chelsea Pensioners lurking like windbitten unseasonal tulips among the grey graves of the Royal Hospital.”

Mackay's precise, unsentimental images, integral to her stories' themes, sum up entire lives. In “The Last Sand Dance”, Zinnia, a middle-aged actor “with an unreconstructedly actressy West End glamour about her”, moons about her kitchen, then notices how “two strawberries left on a plate had bloated and their seeds turned black like the bristles in a drunk's bruised red face.” Yes, her marriage is in trouble. When, in “Babushka on the Bus”, we meet “Reginald Winchester, not his real name, sitting in the front left-hand seat of the upper deck,” we deduce from his clothes that he is a thesp past his best: “The camel-hair was ringed with grease where his thinning plumage rested on it and the buttons hung from shanks of mis-matched thread”.

On his dreary Good Friday journey “to nowhere” Reginald dreams of past Sunday teas: “apricots in Carnation milk and the pink and yellow windowpanes of Battenberg cake.” He and fellow disconsolate travellers are transformed by the generosity of the eponymous Babushka, who offers them Holy Communion in the form of home-made hot-cross buns. Reginald achieves his own particular resurrection, able to see, from the bus window, “an ancient cherry tree veiled in heartbreaking white”. No accident that the miracle happens as the glum Goths, bickering girlfriends and lonely Reginald trundle towards Herne Hill in south-east London. Mackay, the former Queen of Crystal Palace, likes to swerve her eye aside, to survey unfashionable venues. These stories from the eighties cherish suburbia, the poignancy of evenings “made unbearable by night-scented stocks and nicotania mingling with the smell of diesel and chips”, the cheeriness of women baking wholemeal pizzas then wrenching on pink rubber gloves to whip up fine pink mists of Windowlene.

Soft targets? Perhaps, but, like Muriel Spark, Mackay helped to invent them, turn the spotlight on them. A major star of this show is the gloriously wacky “Shinty”, an affectionately mocking portrait of feminist shenanigans at Dorothy's, a cult bookshop in Soho. “Friends of Dorothy” was a camp euphemism for gays. Passionate as girls in the playground, the dykes skirmish over literary values. A triumph!

Virago, £16.99. Order at £14.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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