‘You’re nice,’ she said. Nice? Nice? If only she knew.’
So says Jo, a girl in a candyfloss booth, to one of the three would-be jihadis in ‘In Praise of Radical Fish’, a story about a ‘pre-jihad team-building weekend’ in Brighton. Nice isn’t nice, is it? That’s the popular view. If someone is nice – nice? – it means they are a little bit lacking. Or at least that’s been the way of things for a while. You might, from time to time, hear the odd person say an enthusiastic “nice!” – usually a man of a certain age reacting to being told someone or other is driving some fancy new car – but it’s often the exception rather than the rule.
Alison Macleod, we sense, is genuinely nice, though, by which we mean the kind of nice that you would say, even if you were normally inclined not to use that word. She seems to hold quite reasonable political views, her stories often have a sturdy moral foundation and she often attempts, from the evidence of the short stories collected in All the Beloved Ghosts, to give voice to some of the kinds of people who often are not given voice (at least in works of fiction published by major publishing houses or performed on Radio 4). The aforementioned ‘In Praise of Radical Fish’ is a good example of that. As is ‘Solo, A Cappella’ which concerns a romance on the eve of the 2011 London riots. As is ‘There are precious things’ which recalled Geoff Ryman’s novel, 253. She also writes stories that you can imagine being liked by almost anyone who reads and enjoys short stories.
Macleod is playful, engaged, interested in the world about her. She’s drawn to larger than life characters, like Princess Diana (‘Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames’), or Sylvia Plath (‘Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld’), like Chekhov (who appears in a trio of tales, ‘Woman with Little Pug’, ‘Chekhov’s Telescope’ and ‘The Death of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov’), Oscar Wilde (‘Oscillate Wildly’) and Tony Blair (‘How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest’). Stray details (death bed scenes, first husbands) often loiter in the background of neighbouring tales. ‘And again,’ Guy, one of the characters in search of his own reality in ‘Woman with Little Pug’, thinks, ‘he saw his father’s dead, bewildered eyes asking, Is that all?’ She’s literary, a writer who likes to play games, who flirts with artifice (see ‘Sylvia Wears Pink in the Underworld’), but she is also a writer who can surprise (the innovation with the screens in ‘How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest’ nicely subverts reality). There are times when the artifice can jar, certainly – as in ‘Dreaming Diana: Twelve Frames’, where:
‘The exit is almost in sight when a white Fiat Uno appears (or doesn’t appear) and clips (or doesn’t clip) the Mercedes.’
You run this alongside a much tougher read like Eoin McNamee’s 21.23 and Macleod’s story pales a little. But more often than not, her writing belts you in the teeth or plants a smacker on your lips or squeezes you so hard you can’t help but grunt. ‘Chekhov’s Telescope’, for instance, is full of examples of writing that stops you in your tracks, like:
‘Thin though you say I am, do not underestimate me. At your earliest convenience I will love you wildly.’
‘Alexander and I spied on their nakedness from the gully. I see the ancient well, and beside it, the beautiful, fierce-eyed girl who let me kiss her, and kissed me back’
‘I sometimes drift off and return to the Steppe, to its vast ocean of land, to the hymn of the lark, the cry of the kite and the mystery of the kurgans…’
There are scenes, as in ‘We are Methodists’, when Macleod perfectly articulates a moment, on this occasion a woman watching a labourer work, in such a way as to bring that moment vividly to life:
‘I see the solemn gravity of his body, the dark energy of his pupils, the tenderness of his eyelashes and the truth in the unsteady line of his throat.’
And yet – just as the narrator of ‘How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest’ says of Tony Blair, ‘After all, you’re famously nice’ – there is a slight issue with that self-same niceness. ‘How to Make a Citizen’s Arrest’ is a good example: where a writer like Hilary Mantel would assassinate Margaret Thatcher, Macleod performs a citizen’s arrest on Tony Blair. It’s a great story, no mistake, one of the best in the book, but sometimes you want more acid, a splash of vinegar, a hint of unrestrained cruelty. But that desire for acid and vinegar is a qualm, nothing more.
All the Beloved Ghosts is a sturdy collection of stories that seem to suggest Macleod is getting better and better as a writer. Those people who have dabbled previously with Unexploded or Fifteen Tales of Modern Attraction will be all over this book like the proverbial rash. For the rest of you, All of the Beloved Ghosts is a great place to start.
Any Cop?: We’ll be surprised if there is a better collection of short stories published by one of the larger houses this year.