Little Black Dress
  edited by Susie Maguire

Polygon, 2006

"You could put an air embolus in the drip line but you need at least 50ml and that’s not a good way to go. You could switch off the ventilator but they’d hear that. The best would be to disconnect the ventilator from the endotracheal tube. That way it’ll still be wheezing but the oxygen won’t be going into your lungs. The last five minutes will be bad."

Reviewed by Melissa Lee-Houghton

This is a book you will want to re-read. It’s an intriguing concept, all-female writers addressing the ever relevant little black dress, or LBD as it’s affectionately termed. The Little Black Dress clings to the concepts of identity, female independence, liberation and the height of couture and contemporary and modern style. There are endless ways to take this concept and I believe that the stories represented are unusual, original and authentic, there's surprise after surprise. The author biographies are placed at the beginning of the book and you get a little snippet from each writer about what the little black dress means to them and that detail hooks you right away. "My little black dress would be one that didn't smell like old turnip or have melted smarties mashed into it." You get the feeling there will be humour and darker stuff, from the outset.

There are accomplished writers, novelists, journalists, broadcasters, actresses and more in the unique collection. The opening story by Michelle Berry is darkly funny, a delicious piece of prose where a club of would-be widows lounge and casually plot murder by the poolside, aptly titled Five Old Crows. The club wear little black dresses and drink G&T's in the afternoon in the heat; the story has a drunken swagger to it, you feel that the whole piece is intoxicated by the end of the story. "'Shopping for a funeral must be fun,' Rosalie says, dreamily. 'Think of the dresses. The hats. The shoes. Gloves even.'" The ending is unflinching, unexpected and above all, funny.

In a number of stories, the LBD almost has a physical presence, a life of its own, hung up in the closet or hidden away, a thing of almost obsessive appeal. In Dancing in the Dark by Rosemary Goring, the LBD "slithered off the hanger and into Helen's hand it crackled, giving off pin pricks of light." In this piece, the LBD is a thing of desire, a costume that can bring about a kind of female revamp and reinvention, and creates a vantage point for a fractured relationship to try to find its way again. You want to touch the dress yourself, you want to feel it and see it and hold it, it's described so powerfully. In this story, one of the most beautiful lines in the book, "The ache in her thighs was soothed by the cool sheath of the dress, but it was a pain of pure pleasure."

One of the longer, darker stories is 50/50 Psychic by Muriel Gray, as curious a story as its title suggests. Angel McKay, who appears to be well endowed with a personality disorder of some description, finds herself a part to play in a very old story which began with her great grandmother's horrifying crime and whose dress and iron bath find their way back to their rightful owner. This is a far-fetched piece yet totally convincing in all its lovely, tense and seriously dark drama. Angel's character is completely unlikable yet it works.

The Girl Before by Morag Joss is altogether the most harrowing story in the book. Again, there is a black dress which is so beautiful that it seems to come alive, "It's made of some stretchy material that is cold to the touch and has a slight spangly look to it. Under the bulb in the ceiling it draws all the light to itself and at the same time sends back winking dots of it, and I push my had inside and turn it around under the material..." The LBD in this dress is not liberating in the least. The concept of The Girl Before reminds me of The Handmaid's Tale, where the heroine is haunted by the thought of what happened to the girl before her, finally coming to the conclusion that things went fatally for her. In this story, the girl survives with her wits after an ordeal that honestly provoked me and distressed me, and I would challenge anyone to read and not want to heave with tears.

Alma Martyr by Susie Maguire is a clever little number. The black dress in this story is used as a ruse, an instrument of deceit. A woman makes a particularly, casually cruel con, with ease, determination and a memory that does not want to forget. Energetic prose with an eye for detail and an unforgiving main character whose lack of empathy and fever for credit cards and cash is ever so slightly chilling.

The most frustrating (in a good way) story I have ever read is White Coat/Black Dress by Manda Scott. A medical student is confronted by a photograph of an exceptional woman in a black dress, and finds her hooked up to a ventilator, unable to speak on a ward where people are most likely to die or are waiting to die. The story is brave and bold, piercing with its vision and pushed to its limits. It is a genuinely frightening, meticulously crafted story whose main character ends his stay of fence-sitting to aid a terrible eventuality: "..if they become ‘restless' they can be sedated with propofol….works quite well partially to anaesthetize someone who might otherwise wish to make a statement regarding their worth as a human being." The prose is driven and disturbing.

There aren't many light hearted moments in a book dominated by extreme personalities, and revenge and complicity and murder plots and assault, but there are some refined, gentler pieces concerned with relationships, dynamics and the pivotal feature being the LBD. There is nothing sentimental and no weak spots. There are also some unusual stories such as Kate Mosse's Red Letter Day which takes you on an eerie dream-like journey, out of the reaches of the normal, the canny, the familiar, the everyday. Sian Preece's The Difference is a beautifully upbeat story, about a brother and his younger sister who wants to join his rock band; you could cheer at the ending. It's lighter yet still holds its weight. Skinny Girls by Elizabeth Reeder runs at a different pace entirely, a lithe and gorgeous piece with an elegant touch, a real joy to indulge in.

There are no let-down stories in this anthology. An engaging, defiant and extraordinary collection.

Melissa Lee-Houghton is the author of the book Patterns of Mourning by Chipmunka, and has a full collection of poems scheduled for summer this year by Penned in the Margins.
Melissa's other Short Reviews: Philip Shirley "Oh Don't You Cry For me"

Jason Brown "Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work"

Delmore Schwartz "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities"   

David Gaffney "Aromabingo"

Elizabeth Baines "Balancing on the Edge of the World"

John Saul "As Rivers Flow"

Stephanie Johnson "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others"

Nicholas Royle (ed) "'68: New Stories from Children of the Revolution"

NIk Perring "Not So Perfect"

Tom Vowler "The Method"
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Editor : Susie Maguire is a former actor, comedy performer and TV presenter, who now writes fiction. Her short story collections are The Short Hello and Furthermore and she has edited three other anthologies of love, comedy and crime stories.