Fifteen short stories are pulled together in this semi-themed collection by Man Booker and Orange Prize-nominated author Gaynor Arnold. The running thread is relationships, and you’ll find quite a lot of people lying down together here – and not just because they’re a bit on the weary side. There are forceful blokes, thoughtful women, pushy girls and gentlemen pushovers, and this lack of gender stereotyping is a definite strong point, with typical roles quite often reversed and thrust into the spotlight for questioning.
Also raised are issues surrounding feminism and post-feminism and whatever the hell post-post-feminism we have these days: as a female reader, I found myself wondering if the bolshy modern woman or gobby tarty teenager (at least the ones Arnold portrays) is actually any better or stronger than her less forthright but far more polite pre-bra-burning counterparts. Many of the contemporary characters come across as joyless self-loathing men-haters, while the colonial Octavia in ‘Taking People In’ (“caressing silk caftans, cashmere jumpers, chiffon cocktail frocks”) and former stage star Lydia in ‘The Ginger Rogers Of Bath And Wells’ (“she turned the full blaze of her charm upon him”) exude glamour and style, and don’t seem so hard done-by when it all boils down to the nitty-gritty of life and love.
“Lying together” also relates to the tales friends, families and lovers spin for each other, either to save feelings or to save face. From little white lies to outright porkies, there’s always some dark secret or hidden past just waiting to be discovered between these sheets. Bang in the centre of the volume is ‘Stand Well Back’, a fantastic story with such depths and layers of intrigue, it almost makes your head spin as much as the mixed-up Matthew in the middle of the action. “I don’t want her long elegant fingers and immaculately painted nails. I want the smell of geraniums and baking…” There are a lovely couple of twists and a clever structure of episodic snapshots stitched together, and with the pace and emotion pitched just right, I think this story in particular will stay with me for a long time.
Arnold also explores some other interesting ideas, including the jarring juxtaposition of companion pieces ‘Mouth’ and ‘Angel Child’ with the same mother-daughter relationship told from each completely contradictory side. There’s also a Paris-based sub-section, although I must admit I did at first groan at the hackneyed images I could sense looming at me out of the descriptions of the rue de Rivoli and lovelorn ladies “sat on park benches in the Tuileries watching children at play in sandpits, or sailing boats in the grand bassin”. In reality, the stories knocked the wind out of these old clichés and I very much enjoyed ‘Room For Manoeuvre’ with its detailed portrait of old lady Mademoiselle Regnier, ‘French Coffee’ with its clumsy American business traveller, and ‘In The Street Of The Rose-gatherers’ with its downtrodden wife slipping off with her caring new beau.
Any Cop?: Lots of variety in these short stories, despite the common links throughout the collection. And not just one for the ladies, either; it might be about relationships and love, but it’s intelligent and sassy.