-Reviewed by Joshua Lambert-
Live Show, Drink Included (Holland Park Press), is a collection of short stories from Vicky Grut, or, as the somewhat peculiar publisher’s foreword puts them, ‘mini novels’. It’s billed as a collection to ‘surprise and entertain’, but these fourteen stories are pretty standard fare for short fiction: people and events slightly more interesting than commonplace, but ordinary enough to be a celebration of the mundane. While the collection might not have much of a USP to speak of, it’s worth reading for its cast of engaging, superbly realised characters.
One of the delights of the collection is that each narrative manages to offer a unique proposition. Though grounded in the everyday, there is always some interesting detail or twist that gives each scene and character individuality. There’s inconsistency, however, in how well each story delivers on said proposition. In ‘Escape Artist‘, a young woman has a passive aggressive tug of war with her boyfriend over a new acting gig, which precludes her from starring in his upcoming play.
After she’s accidentally locked into her flat, she starts to appraise her life and the tangling influences around her. It’s an intelligent tableau of gender politics and relationship nuances, with a delightful lead for company.
On the other side of the coin, ‘Saucer of Sweets‘ gives us an editor who starts to have romantic feelings for the author she’s working with. This central relationship, however, is barely shown, which makes it very hard to believe or care about. Instead, we see her interact with everyone but the author: her co-worker, her boss, his wife. A few stories – ‘Rich‘, ‘Downsizing‘, ‘A Minor Disorder‘ – despite having strong narratives, end unfinished, hinting ambiguously at a conclusion rather than giving closure. Though the narrative ellipsis can work wonderfully as a device, I feel it has diminishing returns in this collection. Even so, you’ll be gratified more often than you’ll be left wanting.
There are some real gems between the covers here, and each story is worth a read, but as a collection something is lacking. It feels less like a curated display of Grut’s best work and more a binding together of whatever was to hand. The first story, ‘In the Current Climate‘, shows an office where an oppressive, bureaucratic manhunt is taking place. It’s a semi-surreal Kafkaesque tale that sets up readers’ expectations for the collection. Except what follows is thirteen stories planted firmly in realism, nothing like the first. A little curation would have gone a long way, and it’s hard to find a unifying message or theme to be excited about here; realism and a focus on ordinary situations is hardly special in contemporary short fiction. They’re good stories, but it all feels very safe.
The prose has some good standout passages, like the description of snails:
“heading into the grass like ships, a dark Armada slipping on their bellies across the wet”
But it’s the characters rather than any particular snatches of writing that stick in the mind. I have a few minor niggles, perhaps – I didn’t buy the children, for instance – but by and large, Grut’s talent for character is phenomenal.
Children aside, not a single character appears in these pages without provenance, motivation, desires, flaws, and obsessions. This may sound like a given, but it really isn’t; short story writers could learn a lot from Grut.
I loved the impetuous, self-doubting lead in ‘Escape Artist‘, who finds some unused cocktail napkins and spirals into reproach:
“What a disappointment she must be to her parents. A girl who never gave cocktail parties or served hors d’oeuvres or thought about creating mood through colour.”
It’s a joy to watch these characters affect their environments, and be affected by them.
The academic in ‘Mistaken‘ isn’t just shopping, she’s thinking, preoccupied, buzzwords from a university meeting melding with the advertising slogans around her, “Luxurious. Scientifically proven. Space-age technology. You’re all intelligent, creative people.” The boyfriend in the title story, wrangled into seeing a Soho show by his girlfriend, starts to wonder if he’s too vanilla for her tastes:
“Neal did a quick rummage through the cupboards of his soul, looking for undercurrents and licentious thoughts, handcuffs, whips – he found nothing worth mentioning.”
The story which left the biggest impression was undoubtedly the last, ‘Into the Valley‘, a beautiful story about a woman staying by her in-law’s bedside in her last few days before death. What’s most striking about it is the sheer messiness of it all. There’s no romance, no literary acceptance, no thematic resonance in death: it is just awful. The mother-in-law suffers through delusions and night terrors, afraid of death and unwilling to face it head-on, prompting an equally raw reaction from the main character:
“At some ridiculous level I find myself disapproving of her tenacity, as if it’s a kind of greed, a lack of acceptance. I don’t think I’d struggle this hard, not even at the age I am now. Perhaps I don’t love life enough. Perhaps I’ll feel differently when I get to eighty.”
Grut’s tenderness and understanding, present throughout, shines like a halogen bulb here.
There are definitely problems in this collection, along with a handful of annoyances. With the exception of ‘Live Show, Drink Included‘, for instance, the titles all read like placeholders that never got changed. Looking at the contents page you might mistake ‘Dedication’ and ‘Acknowledgement’ for stories, because they fit so well with banalities like ‘Mistaken’, ‘Visitors’, and ‘An Unplanned Event’. But despite these, Grut’s gift for character elevates the collection above its other, more average attributes. Seeing how she can make a side-character in a short story feel so developed, imagine what she could do with a novel, especially if she plays it less safe.
- View the twelve titles on the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2019 Longlist (announced 30 May 2019)
Sabotage Reviews is taking a look at a number of the indie-published titles on the longlist, including Leila Aboulela’s Elsewhere, Home (Telegram/SAQI), Michael Conley’s Flare and Falter (Splice), Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home (Stinging Fly), Clare Fisher’s How the Light Gets In (Influx Press), and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Catholic Boy (Doire Press).
- View the six titles on the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2019 Shortlist (announced 9 August 2019)
The winner of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize for best single author collection will be announced on 25 October 2019.