Sunday, 27 November 2011

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

Polly Samson, Perfect Lives

Polly Samson’s linked short stories combine beautifully nuanced writing with sharp observation as she dissects present-day life in England. Perfect Lives opens with "The Egg", a portrait of an apparently successful marriage: the Idlewilds are a comfortable, privileged family in a desirable English seaside town but, under the malign presence of a perfectly ordinary egg, we see Celia’s careful edifice shatter, and we become aware that the perfection of her surroundings, too, is marred.

As I read this first story I wondered if there were going to be too many jolts, if the pitch of the writing would be too erratic. I needn’t have worried, because it was followed by "Barcarolle", possibly my favourite in the collection. The power of this story lies in its physicality, as in the contrast between the lines of Anna’s back as she changes a light-bulb and the longer lines of the piano, or the sea outside juxtaposed with the waves of music. The writing is at once delicate and muscular, building image on carefully-chosen image to a sensory climax as the Chopin Barcarolle that Richard has dreamt of all day can finally be played on the third piano. The opulence of the Idlewild establishment, with its valuable, but lightly-owned instrument, is set against Anna’s colourful creativity and the battered instrument she cherishes. Morganna’s home, too, has a richness of detail that contrasts with a paucity of affection, the garish parrot an object of loathing rather than of love, as is the piano that Lola has damaged in her refusal to do her 10 minutes of practice. Only the Idlewilds have the resources to train a pianist, but Laura is competent, not talented, while Anna has the necessary passion but neither the ability not the instrument.

The stories continue, touching on past memories – Greenham Common in the 80s, Bobo’s stories of the war: “Secondhand memories were blowing about the Hamburg streets like litter. Kristallnacht.” –  while in the present day, Claudine finds a father, Tilda discovers that it is possible to love her son. Earth-shattering events only happen offstage: these are the small, daily agonies of ordinary lives, meaningful and worthy of note because we recognise them in ourselves. And therein lies the pleasure, in the main – the careful, elegant enunciation of the trivial, like an embroidery of meticulous stitches, shot through with flashes of brilliance. 

Perfect Lives was reviewed for the Virago Book Club

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