By Julie Burchill
How I love short stories! Long before the internet realised that we can’t sit still long enough to commit to the three-volume novels of yore, these little beauties were hitting the sweet spot repeatedly. I especially love female short story writers — Shena Mackay, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley — as they often read quite gossipy and friendly-like, as opposed to men who have to go out and shoot something to make some depressing point, or at least try to prove they’re the strong and silent type. Strong and silent writers should be true to themselves and simply shut up.
The young journalist Emily Hill is, on the strength of this gorgeous debut collection, the Saki of sex: she shares his grim good humour and glinting malice, grounded not in cheap scepticism but in a vast imaginative grasp of how fantastic life can be and how odd it is that we choose to make it so narrow. (The final story ‘Super-Lies’, documenting the operatic nightmare of a muse’s meltdown, even sounds like one of his titles.) ‘Julia’s Baby’, the opener, is as perfectly constructed a short story as I have ever read.
The femme fatalities in these stories are past-mistresses of painting on a smile and putting the best red-soled foot forward; Hill takes a scalpel straight to the screaming skull beneath the expensively smoothed skin, zooming in on the hallucinogenic hollows of heartbreak. She is both compassionate and merciless, full of scorn and sorrow. And droll, too:
The 21st century is full of second chances. The stakes aren’t very high for anything any more. Not when it comes to love. Think of all the romantic heroines of literature. There wouldn’t be a story, today. Anna Karenina would have divorced that dullard Karenin. Sued for custody. Rejoined society. Cathy and Heathcliff — a clear-cut case of antibiotics and social services. Romeo and Juliet witness protection.
Mugged by children, tormented by rabbits and sexually harassed by leopards, these girls could pick the sole sticky end of a lollipop out of a bran-tub of Tiffany’s trinkets. Unnatural love and the natural world conspire to bring down our plucky heroines, thorns and cads in tandem tearing at their clothing as they sashay blithely up the primrose path to emotional mayhem. They are sleepless, reckless, feckless and altogether adorable in their hacked-off humanity, displaying the strange dignity of total exposure: adventuresses who make one move too many on the wrong man, lose their footing and end up as smashed Meissen figurines.
There’s such harrowing honesty in these tales from abandoned boudoirs that they’d have the Sex and the City mob clutching their pearl necklaces in horror; and such flights of surrealist fancy — Hitler turns up as a peeping tom landlord; a single girl avoids party bores by boasting that her boyfriend is the late Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky — that it makes Girls look like the pedestrian plod it always was.
I’m keen on things that aren’t what they seem, and this book is a shining example; it’s pleasing to think of it selling to young women expecting a comforting dose of chick-lit and then finding themselves hurtling headfirst into a surrealist extravaganza. It seems unlikely that the dolly blonde of the jacket photo who writes a dating column seems all set to become the heir to Hector Hugh Munro, but as Emily Hill’s stories illustrate so beautifully, life is full of surprises.