Simon Baker

Bookends: In the bleak midwinter

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Here is the latest Bookends column from this week's issue of the Spectator:

Salley Vickers name-checks (surely unwisely) the granddaddy of all short stories, James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, in the foreword to her first collection, Aphrodite’s Hat (Fourth Estate, £16.99). However, the less desirable influence of Roald Dahl seems to preside more tellingly in many of these yarns, which recall Tales of the Unexpected in their predictable twists and spooky presences. Fortunately, Vickers does not stay completely within the formula, and the volume contains a number of sketches about unhappy couples, dreadful mothers and uncared-for children which generally rise above the corniness of the remainder: a feature of the book is that very few of its characters empathise or communicate properly with others, or even understand their own true wishes, giving the whole a dissatisfied, wintry feel (notably, it is December in many of the pieces).

Of these, the best is the well-crafted title story, in which a woman involved in a long-term affair has to deal with unpleasant inner conflict when she finds out her lover’s rather nice wife has cancer. The rest fail to match up. Some are passable, but there is too much sameness, and in many the misery appears staged. Sensible women somehow always leave one ill-chosen man for another, and modern-day young children from affluent families are given an unlikely freedom to wander around by their implausibly cold parents. The last story, featuring a ghostly Keats, is likeable, but ultimately Salley Vickers does not make enough of the short-story form here.