Another week, another weighty short story collection… At the time of writing, The Penguin Book of the British Short Story (ed. by Philip Hensher), is going to be on many a Christmas list. Like with similar collections, they implicitly carry a message: that the short story is not the novel’s poor, backstreet cousin. That they constitute fully-formed art – a novel in miniature rather than a novel-lite – wherein the same arc, ebb, flow, conflict and climax can be expected. Put another way, an individual short story’s domain – its locus for exploration – should be no different to that of a novel.
But in moving from the micro to the macro – from a single piece to a collection – how does the game change? Surely, the bar must be raised higher still. For the whole to be greater than a sum of parts, each must bring something to the table: by exploring different themes, striking fresh notes. Individual stories can connect on many levels, but even the most grandiose will seem smaller – from the perspective of an overall collection – where that collection suffers from a lack of variation. And herein lies the flaw in Used To Be, the latest work by Elizabeth Baines. Her stories, when considered atomically, are without exception meritorious. Baines is piqued by life’s randomness – by forks in the road; by the innocuous decisions we take and their irreversible consequences. And that despite our efforts to shape and control our lives, by how we are forever at the mercy of whimsical winds. All of this is handled with a fine hand but the collection suffers from repetition: structurally, emotionally and thematically, the stories that compose the whole are far too similar.
An uncharitable reading of Used To Be might complain about its restricted emotional range – there is no icy cold or scorching hot, just a consistent, tepid, wan reflectiveness. A more generous reading would emphasise the elegiac quality of these stories. At times Baines showcases skill and even flair in these love letters to the little person – the small woman – and her unspoken thoughts, her unrequited desires; the quiet burden she bears. All the protagonists are female and there is a distinct feminine quality underscoring this work.
Any Cop?: Used To Be is then either a middling collection, or a grouping of a dozen evocative stories. And to be sure, the latter conclusion is easily achieved – just read one story at a time. In the right mood, they will sparkle.