Ten Stories About Smoking
 by Stuart Evers

First Collection

" Linda liked the way her brother's driveway felt beneath her feet. Singled and stoned, it gave a solid, satisfying crunch at every step, a sound both aristocratic and forbidden; as though she'd stolen over a wrought-iron fence into the gardens of a stately home. She dropped her cigarette, crushed it under the heel of her boot, and looked at her watch. She was far later than expected, but she didn't think it mattered."

Reviewed by Catherine Smith

Collections of linked short stories aren’t always a wholly satisfying phenomenon; sometimes they seem too gimmicky or insular, not sufficiently wide-ranging or inventive in scope, the characters and their dilemmas too stodgily similar. Ten Stories About Smoking, however, in its cheeky "fag carton" packaging, is a delight, not least because the smoking "theme" is handled with skill, humour and often great subtlety. Evers isn’t afraid to experiment with different voices; there are first, second and third person narrators in this collection of flawed and memorable characters. In some stories, a character’s smoking habit is absolutely central to the plot - a driving force.

Perhaps my absolute favourite in the collection - and there were several stories I re-read several times, admiring the clarity and sharpness of the prose, so this wasn’t an easy decision - is Things Seem So Far Away, Here. Linda, the protagonist, is a hardcore smoker whose often mentally chaotic, unprivileged life is literally and metaphorically many miles away from that of her wealthy, successful brother and sister in law. A visit to their luxurious Kent home underlines the differences in their lives; her smoking is often a "smokescreen" between herself and her relatives and sometimes between objective reality and her own perceptions. Linda, however, has a rich inner life, a compulsive tenderness and generosity that makes her the warmest and most likeable character in this beautifully observed story; the ending, which cuts off - stubs out, perhaps? - at exactly the right moment, leaves the reader with that socked-in-the-guts feeling.

In others, one has to look harder to detect the yellowed fingers, stale odour and hacking cough associated with hardcore smoking. In Real Work, told in the second person, which gives it a deliciously claustrophobic, confessional, sometimes creepy intimacy, the narrator reflects on his intense but ultimately doomed relationship with his rising-star artist live-in girlfriend. Here, the smoking is more subtle, deftly woven into the fabric of the story, but the details are as delicate and lingering as a smoke trail after the smoker has left the room; in the early stages of the story, the narrator recalls that "The window was open, there was a warm breeze, and as I walked out onto your balcony I smoked one of your imported American cigarettes. Below me the city was waking, but was still groggy. "

Evers gives you just enough detail, and no more. Sometimes his writing is so pared back it feels raw, but this gave me the impression he’s happy to trust his reader’s intelligence and imagination, and so doesn’t overload the stories with superfluous description. His characters’ relationships to tobacco, to their bodies and to the prospect of their own mortality, are many and varied. In The Final Cigarette, which could easily have been mawkish but is actually bitterly funny in places, Ray, a writer, actively contemplates a life of smoking, of writing, of love and of guilt. He’s become a better, less selfish person just as he’d about to die. But how he loves that last cigarette, which perhaps symbolises how we all love things that are bad for us but, nonetheless, give us real pleasure and satisfaction. "He knows it is his last cigarette, and he hopes the coughing won’t spoil it."

One of the great joys of imaginative writing is that we can enjoy vices that are bad for us and make us smell bad. I urge any ex-smokers (like myself), as well as unrepentant puffers, to treat themselves to this jauntily life-affirming collection.

Read a story from this collection in EveryDay Genuis

Catherine Smith writes short fiction, poetry and radio drama and teaches for Sussex University, Varndean 6th Form College, The Poetry School and The Arvon Foundation. In 2004 she was included in the PBS/Arts Council ‘Next Generation’ promotion. Two of her poetry collections have been short listed for the Forward Prize. Her first collection of short stories, The Biting Point, is published by Speechbubble Books. Three of the stories have been adapted for a Live Lit show, Weight.
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A former bookseller and editor,  Stuart Evers now writes about books for the Guardian, Independent, New Statesman, Time Out and many other publications. His fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Litro, The Book Club Boutique Magazine and on EverydayGenius.com. He lives in London.

Read an interview with Stuart Evers