The father, the stroke and the holy mess

Three Stories

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Nov 11, 2005.)

A newly-invested vicar lets the funeral of a well-known masseur (both literal and euphemistic) get out of hand, as the congregation starts chipping in with their dirty stories. A middle-aged couple's life is turned upside town, as their London flat is turned inside-out, swept clean by burglars and bringing on a seizure in the husband. A teacher's father begins the long, quiet process of dying in his sleep while his family, and the ties within it, whirl and stretch and start to snap around him.

Each story in this anthology acts like a window into other people's lives, and revel in the loose ends and commonplace, irksome complexities from which all of our own stories suffer. Each has also been fêted by the press, and rightly so: Bennett shows us what it's like not just to be human, but to be other humans, to feel the itch of that person scratching over there and not just to perceive that they have an itch. And each story has its own individual arc and tempo: now pulling you along, now stopping to show you a detail, now involving you in the convolutions and complications.

Bennett sometimes dwells on details a little too much; a little gauchely, as the voices of the characters whose lives he is narrating suddenly leak out, and take over the telling from the otherwise disinterested voice of the author. But, as with his Talking Heads, such clumsiness could be just as studied as unintentional, and lends an endearing, conversational tone to what might otherwise be an unbelievable collision of circumstances. Ultimately every single word is engaged in the act of apologising for, indeed defending, people who any other writer might give up as inexcusable and indefensible; only the artist's own giving-up, Bennett implies, has itself no defence.