Aphrodite's Hat
 by Sally Vickers

Fourth Estate
First Collection

"'All the troubles of the world stem from man's inability to sit still in a room,' my grandmother used to say. "

Reviewed by Pauline Masurel

On the face of it, these are gentle stories. Their edges are not those of high drama but of smaller, circumscribed lives, often a little faded by age. Settings for these stories include Venice, the Chesterton Court Residents' Association, Somerset lanes and maroon-and-cream country buses. Characters include Mrs Radinsky who's rumoured to be "on the game" up in her penthouse studio and loveless Lionel who won't "do" Christmas. There's an open simplicity to most of these stories which I found refreshing. They won't make your brain hurt with decoding meanings. Which is not to say that they're facile or don't have a complexity of emotional response, but you'll generally finish the story knowing what it was about. And they have proper endings too, endings in which plenty of uppances duly come.

The few potential exceptions to this rule are those stories which rely on knowledge of literary or artistic allusions for their effect, or at least to augment their meaning. For the title story, Aphrodite's Hat, this is made easy for the reader because the painting is reproduced on the book cover. The Buried Life adopts a similar approach by reproducing an entire Matthew Arnold poem at the end of the story to retrospectively explain itself. I found this strategy over the top, but it highlights the difficulty of carrying off a story that relies upon an exterior element being accessible to all readers rather than just allowing it to amplify the story for those who are aware of the original atwork.

The Indian Child extensively references Midsummer Night's Dream. That story, and The Fall of the Sparrow which features a ghostly Keatsian character, didn't really work for me. Partly because I'm simply not into Shakespeare and Keats in the way that Salley Vickers probably is, and partly because I found the allegories forced and unnecessary. In contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed the mention in Mrs Radinsky of the man with a pathological hatred of rats who is asked to deliver a seminar on the novel 1984. But, if you're not remotely familiar with George Orwell's ouevre then you might find that quip as gratuitously irritating as Will Shakespeare pitching up in a story to explain one of his plays.

Much as I enjoy a little magic realism from time to time, I prefer Salley Vickers's writing when she is dealing in real lives and demonstrating the acuity of her views of human nature and nuance. For example, Epiphany examines how a man's sense of his own life history is transformed when he discovers that his father isn't the good-for-nothing he has always been told. Moving looks at that hiatus moment when a place of significance is sold. It considers "accomodation" in all of its senses, not just as a place to live, but how we make allowances for things and come to terms with them. There are stories that involve secrets shared between trusted adults and children: the nan in Nightmare and an allotment holder in The Deal. These are both a little slight in plot and import but interesting examinations of adult/child relationships.

As in Sally Vickers's first novel, Miss Garnet's Angel, religion is a frequent theme in these stories and the mysterious and the metaphysical often crop up. The Hawthorn Madonna carries this off well with a perfectly balanced ending that leaves the reader able to interpret the outcome as either a miracle or the result of an entirely earthly agency. The Return, which overlaps events in a hotel room through time, was less successful to my way of reading, leaving me a puzzled sometimes about the story's timelines.

This collection is a welcome introduction to Salley Vickers's short fiction. Her novels have been tremendously popular with book clubs and reading groups. Consequently, I'm disappointed that (at the time this review was written) her own website does not even include this collection in the Books section, despite the fact that the hardback was published back in 2010. Is the implication that a collection of stories is not a "proper book", perhaps, and hence somehow unworthy of mention? This is a great shame, because it's a missed opportunity for Salley Vickers, for her readers and for the cause of short stories that the short fiction of such a well-loved and frequently-read author could so easily be overlooked, even by her own dedicated fans.

Read a story from this collection in The Guardian

Pauline Masurel is a gardener and writer who lives in South Gloucestershire. .

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Erin Pringle "The Floating Order"

Jim Crace "The Devil's Larder"

Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead"

Kasia Boddy, Ali Smith, Sarah Wood (eds) "Let's Call
the Whole Thing Off"

Ben Tanzer "Repetition Patterns"

Paul Meloy "Islington Crocodiles"

Dan Rhodes "Anthropology"

Frank Burton "A History of Sarcasm"

Various "Ten Journey"

Michael Sims (ed) "Dracula's Guest

Margaret Atwood "Good Bones"

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya "There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby"

Rob Redman (ed) "various authors"

Valerie Trueblood "Marry or Burn"