by Tom Lee

Harvill Secker
2009, hardback
First collection

Tom Lee was born in Essex in 1974 and attended the University of East Anglia, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Goldsmith College. His stories have appeared in Zoetrope All-Story in the United States, The Dublin Review in Ireland and Zembla magazine in the UK, among others, as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Read an interview with Tom Lee

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"It was remarkable how much this life, in all its strangeness and turmoil, resembled the one I had previously been leading. Everything was different and yet, aside from my weekly betrayal, nothing was. June and I saw friends and family and attended hospital appointments and antenatal classes. We made arrangements for the birth and met the midwife. I cleared out the spare room and began to turn it into a nursery. We shopped for things the books told us we would need. June's belly continued to swell.
    But I could no longer see June and I clearly."

Reviewed by Carol Reid

Character and place haunt each other in this memorable first collection of twelve stories by Tom Lee.

In Berlin, Lee presents a portrait of a city suffocating in the stranglehold of its own history and a marriage suffering a parallel fate. A November "holiday" to Berlin and an enforced itinerary of visiting one nightmarish museum after another ends in a moment of strange, sweet and unexpected victory. The wife, Caroline, says of the city,
"So grey, so much concrete, so many terrible things. I feel like I can't breathe."
The nameless husband describes the city as "…much as I had imagined it: cold and grand, claustrophobic with history." His bloodless but relentless cruelty toward her creates an airless space. He says:
"I wanted my wife to have an affair so that I could resent her and punish her for it. I wanted to suffer and to make her suffer to prove that we were still in love. If it is a game then it is one I am winning."
This story hovers close to belaboring its theme but succeeds on the strength of its depiction of a tormented relationship.

Several stories are set in Latin American locales. The title character of Mrs Echegary waits for her lover in her usual room of the Hotel Mirabelle, blurring her awareness of the end of the affair with many bottles of champagne. She finally notices the shabbiness of the room, and a "yellow-brown tobacco stain on the ceiling above the bed." This is a restrained story of loneliness and delusion, very sad indeed.

San Francisco takes place in another, even less salubrious hotel, not in San Francisco at all, but in an unnamed high altitude city where the air is so thin that cigarettes seem to last forever. The protagonists wait for the arrival of a shadowy character named Ramiro as their love affair withers and sense of safety deteriorates. The denizens of the reception area have an air of maniacal menace toward the cocaine-addled narrator.
"I try to ask them about the political situation and they snigger at my attempts. Once, when I sneezed, they laughed hysterically. They held their heads and rocked in their chairs. They couldn't stop."
The theme of being caught and stuck, held by unknowable forces, runs through many of these stories. Lee's deceptively offhand prose style captures and holds the reader's interest. We are drawn into the protagonists' struggles, staying the course with them even as we realize that things will not turn out well.

The Good Guy, while by no means a light read, attacks this theme of suffocation and helplessness with a suggestion of wry humor. Among other stressful situations in his life, JP, college lecturer and titular "good guy" is diagnosed with a panic disorder by the philosophical campus GP. The doctor pronounces his condition "…an existential rather than a medical phenomenon". A distressed JP asks, "am I dying?"
"The doctor did not look around. 'We're all dying', he said."
I happened to read this passage in my own doctor's waiting room, which firmly established my goodwill toward this collection.

Read a story from this collection in The Times

Carol Reid is an amateur short story writer, an Associate Editor for Emprise Review and also reviews crime fiction for
carol's other Short Reviews: "Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction"

"Passport to Crime: The Finest Mystery Stories from International Writers"

Richard Matheson "Button, Button: Uncanny Stories"

Andrew Porter "The Theory of Light and Matter"

Fran Friel "Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales"

Kathy Page "As In Music"

Christopher Fowler "Old Devil Moon"

"Home of the Brave" edited by Jeffery Hess

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