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Mark Illis

"There’d be an autopsy, George Clooney out of E.R. would cut me open and look at my heart and push his finger around in my guts and he’d take off the mask and point those big brown eyes at Mum and Dad, all sad and softly spoken but accusing. "You should never have put her through it", he’d say. "This girl died for nothing". Or, no, "This beautiful girl died for nothing." My mum would be crying, Dad would be looking at his shoes, and George Clooney would literally be holding my heart in his hands."

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson

Tender is a novel in stories, a connected collection of 13 stories about the Dax family that spans from 1974 to 2004. 

We first meet Ali in 1974 at the end of a painful relationship, and at the point where she meets Bill who will become her husband for 26 years. Each story takes a different family perspective. 1977: Deep Water is Bill and Ali's story of a holiday they have early in their marriage. 1984: Man in Space is Frank's story. He is Ali's brother, and this is the only story he tells in the book, even though he is deeply felt in other stories. Ali and Bill have two children who both tell stories.

Tender feels like a novel, in the sense that the same characters inhabit the stories, there are threads that run between stories, connections that we recognise, and our knowledge from earlier stories increases our awareness and enjoyment of later ones. It is a book to be read sequentially, and not pick out stories at random. On the other hand, there is not one particular main story that arcs through the book. These stories can stand alone, there is a narrative arc, and a pleasing satisfaction in each individual story. This is the real strength of Tender; it has the benefits of a wonderful novel, as well as the joy of reading a collection of short stories.

One particularly strong story is 1995: There's a Hole in Everything. This story is about Rosa, Ali and Bill's genius thirteen year old daughter. Her experiences are captured with such precision, tenderness and aching authenticity. She remembers going to the park with Uncle Frank: "We'd lie on our backs and watch the clouds moving and bumping into each other. I'd say that one looks like a fat man swimming, and he'd say, that one looks like a piano that's fallen into a tree." She bunks school with her almost imaginary friend: "Shelley chugs cider from her coke can. I pick up a lipstick. Damson blush, glossy, waterproof, twelve-hour life, and drop it into my pocket." She struggles to cope with a bully in school: "She came up with the WE LOVE ROSA badges, and began the campaign about my so-called body odour." The small details in this story create a growing tension, a quietness that attaches it to the reader, so that by the end, all the emotion in the story is tugging hard at us. This seems to be one of Mark Illis' talents as a writer; capturing the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such precision that we carry them with us way after we finish reading.

The collection explores intimate space: the moments when a husband and wife each consider an affair; the jealousy of a brother who promises to hate his sister forever; the absence after a brother/uncle has committed suicide; the sense of getting older and dreams from younger days being lost; a child feeling they are a disappointment to his parents; a parent not being able to reach out and help the daughter they know is struggling.

It is tender, funny, startling, sad, and resonates with truth. There are many things to love about this book. The way each chapter/story starts with such originality: "Liz had armpit stubble, moles, a BCG scar and her labia were thick and uneven like misshapen ears." Beautiful description: "It looked like Ali was erecting cities around the kitchen, compact cities with curved walls and uneven skylines." The depiction of such subtle moments within relationships: "You know what I feel. I feel we've reached a point." That was it, it sounded like half a sentence. "We've reached a point." And then there are the gently echoing phrases and images that haunt the prose and journey between stories: the phrase "I'll be leaving", escape artistes, the story of how Ali and Bill met, objects from their home, people asking "Are you alright?"

By the end of the book, I was left wondering whether these characters would be alright, whether any of us are ever alright, and decided that these were exactly the right questions to ask, that I had found something achingly true within these pages.

Read an excerpt from this collection on SaltPublishing.com

Annie Clarkson is a poet and short story writer living in Manchester, UK. Her first chapbook of prose poems Winter Hands was published by Shadow Train Books in 2007.

Annie's other Short Reviews: Anthony De Sa "Barnacle Love"

Laura Chester "Rancho Weirdo"

Daniel Grandbois "Unlucky Lucky Days"

Josephine Rowe "East of Here, Close to Water"


Publisher: Salt Publishing

Publication Date: 2009

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Mark Illis writes novels, short stories, radio plays and TV drama. He is the author of three novels, A Chinese Summer, The Alchemist, The Feather Report and most recently, this collection of short stories. He lives in West Yorkshire, with his wife and two children

Read an interview with Mark Illis

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Salt Publishing


The Author's Recommended Bookseller: The Bookcase


Book Depository



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Liz Jensen