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Personal Velocity

Rebecca Miller   

" Louisa smiled and talked but guilt was eating her happiness like acid. She knew why she had plunged the knife into her wrist. She had done it so that she wouldn’t have to destroy the rest of her paintings. The impulse had risen out of the darkness of her ambition like Poseidon from the sea, snatching her from the waves. There was something calculated about it. She suspected herself.…"

Reviewed by Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson

These seven stories are each named after the women on whom they focus; damaged women struggling to find and define themselves, often against a background of domineering fathers and oblivious husbands. 

Miller writes a mean description, with a true artist's eye; the details are always telling and astutely chosen: eyes are described as "pale blue like jeans washed too many times"; a painting "is a pulsing, vast empty field of red, lonely as the bottom of the sea"; a man falls in love "by watching her live. Desire came last." However, despite the poetry of these details, there is sometimes a lack of discrimination in their use, which seriously undermines the effect. When everything in a story is given equal weight - from a main character's marriage to every single person present in a diner she steps into - nothing stands out. 

In the same way, some stories felt over-explained. Beautifully observed characters were given more history than they could carry and suffocated under the weight. In Greta we learn every detail of Greta's education, every job she has ever held, her sexual history, even a dream drenched in symbolism from the night before her wedding. It's too much. The same happens in Delia. I loved the hard-edged Delia and the way that traditional roles of sexuality and power were subverted in this piece. However, I found her precisely mapped journey from class slut to abused wife tedious and off-putting, as if every occurrence required a reason and proper motivation. At one point we are told that Delia finally leaves her violent husband when "the kids were howling, terrified. It was their pain that finally broke through Delia’s inertia"; later she tells herself she was right to leave by remembering her elder son "raising his fist in the air over his two-year-old sister". Both are terrible and terrifying images – one would be reason to leave, but two start to cancel one another out and blur the impact of a stunning ending. 

My favourites in this collection were the more awkward, less coherent tales, those with a touch of the unexplained that made the reader work. Nancy is a claustrophobic nightmare, a family trapped in freefall together: a distant child, a viciously suicidal father - "He wants there to be a lot of blood when it happens. He wants her to have to deal with it" - and an unfaithful mother. Point of view skews sickeningly between the characters and there is an unreliability to Nancy's narration that gives the story a gothic dreamlike quality. This fractured narrative is cleverly layered with a magazine journalist's account of this 'perfect' family life - yet another untrustworthy narrator balancing on an unsafe surface. 

Likewise Bryna withholds vital knowledge from the reader and is the stronger for it. We never learn why quiet, dreamy Bryna starts screaming in the middle of her employer's dinner party - only that it is a release that enables her to face down her domineering mother-in-law. The structure is more traditional, less disassembled than Nancy and the story made a virtue out of this plainer narrative style - a strong ending was underlined with the triumphant arrival of long-awaited rain. 

Miller has a fine eye and a real talent. I sped through the stories of Personal Velocity, believing absolutely in each of these women and feeling for their plights. Perhaps the danger of inhabiting your characters so thoroughly is that you feel obliged to then offer everything about them to your reader, just to show that you can. I wanted Miller to be tougher, more mysterious. To make the reader beg and then say no.

Read an excerpt from one of the stories in this collection on Bookhugger.com

We have five copies of Personal Velocity to give away! Visit the Competitions & Giveaways to win.

Elizabeth Rutherford-Johnson lives in London, where she is trying to find a balance between writing, motherhood and having a life. Her short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, LITRO, The New Writer and pulp.net, among others.
Elizabeth's other Short Reviews: Andrzej Stasiuk "Tales of Galicia"   

Michael Chabon (ed) "McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories"

Sylvia Petter "Back Burning"

"Best American Short Stories 2007"

Tom Bissell "God Lives in St Petersburg"

Nora Nadjarian "Ledra Street"

Carol Manley "Church Booty"

Publisher: Canongate

Publication Date: 2009 (first published in 2002)

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Rebecca Miller is a painter, actor, director and writer. She has directed a film of three of the stories in Personal Velocity as well as an adaptation of her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

We have five copies of Personal Velocity to give away! Visit the Competitions & Giveaways to win.

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If you liked this book you might also like....

Mary Miller "Big World"

Mary Akers "Women Up On Blocks"

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What other reviewers thought:

The Richmond Review

The Independent