Bad Romance is a collection of twenty short stories – you can buy it here.
It was reviewed by Julie Burchill in The Spectator in February 2018.
This is what she had to say:
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.
The first story, Julia’s Baby, was published in The Spectator at Christmas 2016:
Julia should not have come to the wedding. That much was clear as soon as she arrived. Late, she was, and massive in belly. Her hat festooned with tropical fruit; her dress — hideously colourful. She made the hinges shriek on the great church door and winced, as it slammed shut, with a shudder. Puffing out her cheeks, she waddled slowly towards the nearest pew. She had a fist jammed into the small of her back, as if she were expecting to give birth at any moment.
Everyone turned round to stare. The vicar got confused, forgot his lines, began to stammer. The bride stood at the altar, in an ill-advised orgy of organza and tulle, said something no one heard. The groom started coughing and the best man also. A hissing came from the bridesmaids, taffeta skirts bristling, as they squirmed to get a better view. Someone, somewhere, committed a laugh.
(You cannot remove heavily pregnant people from weddings, as a general rule.)
Flushed, Julia did not appear to notice. She settled in at the back, stared up at the angels in the eaves. Felt her hat, caressed her bump, sang the hymns over-loudly.
The wedding passed off as weddings usually do. Julia did not interrupt. If there were any just cause or impediment, Julia declined to mention it. The bride threw up her ornate veil, the groom seized and kissed her. The organ struck up in triumph. The wedding party swept down the aisle, plump in love, flawless with smiles. Everybody cried. Just as you’d expect.
Outside, the sun shone and died, shone and died, as clouds raced across the sky. Julia disappeared. Confetti was thrown, dried petals flew off, the gravel path littered with silvery shreds. Two turtle doves were let out of a box. One dazed itself, flying out disorientated, straight into the church door. The other refused to perform at all, sat cooing where it was comfortable. The photographer set about his formations. The maid of honour, humiliated in mauve, frowned between shots. The tiniest bridesmaid misplaced her violets and started to cry.
Then the rain came down, in sprightly gusts, so the bride and her mighty dress were borne back inside church, dabbed down with handkerchiefs and rearranged for the car. And it was while the wedding party was stood in the vestibule that a thin plume of smoke was spied, rising from a distant tombstone. Julia crouched there, lighting one fag off the end of another. She must have thought no one was looking.
The scandal reached the reception before Julia did. It was agreed that she had done very well to keep her figure, her slim ankles, shapely legs and slender arms. But if that was how she managed it…
Julia did not seem to mind that she was getting wet. She pulled her ghastly hat down further on her head. Finishing her cigarette, burying the ash, she picked at the blackened moss that filled up the cracks in the gravestone. She tore up a handful of grass to scrub down the letters. The shower ceased and the sun emerged with a little more conviction.
There wasn’t a space for Julia at the wedding breakfast, but she sat down before a plate, crumpled the name tag and dared anyone to move her. Many of the guests, who knew the whole sorry saga, were hoping to draw her out. But Julia just smiled, her eyes glassy, giving answers of remarkably few syllables. After some prodding, she at last came to admit that it was a boy, and she was going to call it George. Another woman, in a dubious hat, asked if Julia had a picture.
‘Of the foetus?’ asked Julia in the lull as the room laid down its dessert forks for the speeches.
The best man’s speech was not a success. Seeing Julia before him, he had to ditch half his routine and all of his jokes. He settled for a rather pitiful story about the tightness of the groom’s running shorts.
When the groom had thrown Julia over, almost eight-and-a-half months previously, everyone had expected her to go to pieces. For Julia was the sort that would. And Julia duly fell apart, over the weeks and months. When first she found out, she would not believe it. Carried on as if everything were normal, refused to give the groom up. So the bride had to step in, to clarify matters. Then there were a series of confrontations. Firecrackers through the groom’s letterbox. Vandalism of the bride’s car. Julia had stapled a letter, full of bitter accusations, to every lamppost on the street.
The bride had wanted to call the police. The groom said it would blow over. And so it did. All hushed up, so that now no one was sure what Julia did or did not do. The only thing anyone knew for sure is that Julia had disappeared to her mother’s house. Nothing more was heard. The groom forgot to feel bad, made a proposal. The bride tried on wedding dresses, set her heart on the church with two spires. Neither of them had wanted a long engagement. The groom had been through one of those.
As the big day approached, the bride felt it only right to issue an invitation to Julia and her mother, Julia’s mother being her godmother and Julia her oldest friend. But neither Julia nor Julia’s mother had made any sort of reply and the bride credited all concerned with doing the decent thing.
The bride was not to know of Julia’s subsequent history.
Of Julia. Sobbing Julia. Hysterical Julia. With one leg hoisted over the Highgate death drop. Julia. Persuaded down. Much to her own embarrassment. Julia three days later. Caught in a scarlet bathtub. Minus a pint of blood. Julia. Patched up in the hospital. Julia. Sobbing Julia. Unable to sleep. Taking all the tablets at once. Found just in time. Another admission. Stomach pumped. (No heart to be mended.)
And there lay Julia. Julia’s sobbing mother. Julia’s sobbing sister. Hysterical, the lot of them.
But tonight Julia seemed pretty much serene.
As the guests became increasingly drunk, everyone began to discuss, quite openly, the father of Julia’s baby. The whole marquee was doing the maths. If Julia was due any day now, and the groom had left Julia less than nine months ago then it was perfectly probable, creditable even… For Julia was a loyal sort, everyone knew that. She was not the sort to cheat and lie, not as attractive as the bride, not as engaging as the bride. But all the same.
The bride and groom took to the parquet. Their first dance marred by the death looks of the bride. The groom, poor man, near death without the looks.
Julia was faring quite well. She had chosen a seat with a magnificent view, on the edge of the dance floor. A great space cleared around her but she did not seem to mind. Julia’s hand flitted to pacify the kickings from within, as she swayed, ever so gently, from side to side. Smiling vaguely to herself, thinking her thoughts.
She had been spied, from under the door of a toilet cubicle, nipping from a hip flask she had hidden in her handbag. She had then shared the contents with the flower girls who had discovered her. They were all of 12, and were now turning various strange shades to clash with their unflattering dresses.
Some time later, when the music stopped for the cake to be cut, everyone held their breath and tried not stare in Julia’s direction. It would not have been polite. At a certain point, Julia must have forgotten she was not supposed to be seen drinking, and had finished off the table wine. Now Julia had her face down in a flower arrangement, groaning at volume, her last cigarette burning a hole in the opulent tablecloth.
The bride’s expression could not be read. Certainly there was contempt and incredulity in her eyes, but her smile confused it. Bravely, she plunged a knife into the swan-shaped cake, with her new husband’s hands about her waist. But as the camera began to flash, her features broke out in fury.
She strode over to Julia, cake knife in one hand, a fistful of her dream dress in the other, ready for the showdown.
Julia roused herself. Shaking her head, she brought herself up to her full height and clamped both hands on her great belly, fingers spread. Julia stood proudly in the middle of the room: so much taller than the bride — always had been, always would be — and possessed of riches that the bride, in her tight white corset, had not.
Julia opened her mouth. And Julia said, pointing at the groom:
‘IT IS HIS BABY.’
Only four words. And she said them very loudly, just like that.
The marquee erupted. The bride began to shriek. The groom collapsed. The father of the bride had the best man by the lapels. The flower girls were sick on their shoes, everyone screamed, the place turned into deafening riot. So no one had their eyes on Julia as she slipped out.
Heavy and waddling, she made her way, crab-like, towards the exit.
Outside, the night was cool and fresh and, as she neared the car that waited for her, Julia’s tread became surer, her stature more erect. Julia wrenched open the back door, tossed her hat on to the back seat and clambered in.
As the car moved off, Julia watched as the marquee receded from view.
And the car rushed ahead, down the empty track. Julia took one last glance behind her. When the last of the lights were eclipsed by trees, she hitched up her dress, withdrew a little knife from the recesses of her purse, and started to sever the uncomfortable prosthetic bulge strapped tightly to her middle.