Rothko's Red, By Sue Hubbard<br />The Silence Room, By Sean O'Brien

Tales of art, love and drink as poets turn to prose

Reviewed,Nicholas Royle
Friday 09 January 2009 01:00 GMT

Two debut collections of short stories by poets: which one profits from diversifying and which is still feeling its way in an unaccustomed form? Sue Hubbard, in fact, is no stranger to fiction, having published a novel highly praised by John Berger. But while Depth of Field was enjoyable for its rich detail and well-turned prose, it would arguably have benefited from a rigorous edit, so perhaps the shorter form would suit. She certainly fashions an arresting opening in which Adam and Maggie gaze at a large magenta Rothko that prompts him to utter a paean to her genitals. But Adam is just the first in a long line of disappointing men blundering naively or selfishly through Hubbard's stories. Inability to commit, unreliability, unfaithfulness – just some of the character faults her protagonists encounter in male partners.

Other recurring motifs are mildewed books and broken frames, silvery stretch marks, women washing under their breasts and their armpits, doing up ruins in Italy. Art links the stories and all the artists invoked are men. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the most powerful results are achieved when Hubbard ventures beyond her middle-class creative types. Janice, the farm worker's abused wife whose knowledge of art is limited to the lid of a biscuit tin, wins our hearts when she starts stockpiling apple chutney in her son's toy cupboard as a hopeful means of escape.

Evidence of the poet's gift for imagery – "the wind snaps at the washing, filling out the drying shirts like the bloated bodies of the drowned" – is in plentiful supply. Of the ten stories, only two are in the first person. The second and last in the book is nakedly personal, and all the more powerful for it.

Sean O' Brien tells less and shows more. His opening story is a dreamlike series of events leading logically from one to the next. We are instantly caught up in the story. Some of O'Brien's tales were written to be read at the Lit and Phil library in Newcastle; many are set there and in the streets around, where the Tyne asserts a gravitational pull on his characters, whether carousing on the Quayside or "sinking through the waters of the dock, claimed by the mud and shit and prams and sofas on the black bed, then released, bloated, back to the upper air".

Pints of mild are supped in numerous bars by "grog-blossomed, marooned men in and beyond middle age". Skirts are short and cleavages deep. The library is permeated by the smell not of books but cigarettes – and, in one case, beer. "In the Duchy" offers an intoxicating description of the effects of drinking Belgian (or Luxembourgeois) beer: "its thick, sweetly baleful influence" rising "through your sinuses and brain-pan, like a slow interior drowning".

The collection is as satisfying as it is stimulating. Picking favourites may be childish, but the narrative spell O'Brien casts is like that first experienced by a young reader. The Freudian overtones of "The Cricket Match at Green Lock", which reads like an uncanny collaboration between Robert Aickman and Edward Upward, are deeply unsettling. The blocked poet-voyeur's pursuit, in "Behind the Rain", of a woman glimpsed in a mirror in a drenched out-of-season Venice – homage to Don't Look Now duly in place – is darkly thrilling.

Nicholas Royle's short-story collection 'Mortality' is published by Serpent's Tail

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