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This volume of short stories, first published in 2008 and then in paperback in 2010, has a lot to offer those familiar with Shena Mackay's previous work and readers coming to her stories for the first time, with a generous 36 stories - 13 recent stories collected in book form for the first time are combined with 23 from Shena Mackay's previous collections.
I am drawn to Mackay's intriguing story titles and this has lots of those - The Atmospheric Railway, Jumbo Takes a Bath, Other People's Bathrobes, All the Pubs in Soho are just some of the most striking ones. You can see why Babies in Rhinestones, Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags, The Laughing Academy and The World's Smallest Unicorn were all used as titles for previous collections. The fiction delivers on the promise of its titles too.
Many of the stories involve train journeys - the title story of the collection is about an older man travelling home to Hampshire from a visit to London, and remembering his family history and past train journeys and experiences. The atmospheric railway was a real Victorian experiment in powering travel using pneumatic pressure (sadly abandoned on cost grounds).
Mackay often sets her work in areas of London neglected by other fiction writers, such as West Norwood, neither inner city nor really suburban, a part of the capital some way beyond the reaches of the Underground, still dependant on the overground railway network which shaped its origins. Places are important to Mackay's characters.
Several stories explore the relationship between people and animals. In Jumbo Takes a Bath an injured squirrel transforms an embarrassing first date. One of my favourites, Babies in Rhinestones, features a duplicitous cat and the humans he has hoodwinked. In The Lower Loxley Effect, a fan of The Archers radio soap opera plans her revenge on the cat terrifying her own furry darling.
Like Neville, many of the characters are in their 50s and 60s and feeling their age, remembering their past, with varying degrees of success and happiness. Don't be put off, though, if you're not there yet, nor am I, and I first discovered and devoured Mackay's work in my 20s.
These stories vary in length, but many are quite short - six were written for the radio and would have had to fit into being read aloud within a 15 minute slot - a good length for reading on a shorter commute to work, perhaps?
I recommend this collection for Shena Mackay's excellent writing, her quirky wit, and her sketches of character and place. This book is an very good introduction to her work - it would be worth buying or borrowing for the new stories alone but the older work is excellent too.
This review first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Format: Paperback 424 pages
Publisher: Vintage November 2010
ISBN: 978 099 46987 4
RRP £9.99, available from Amazon for £8.99