Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The eternal note ...

... of sadness.
Last night, I read the second story in Susan McCallum-Smith's new collection, Slipping the Moorings. It's called "High Rise" and, like the first story, "Ploughman's Lunch" - which I called an Exquisite miniature ... - it is characterized by a notable compassion toward its characters, who are unsophisticated, perhaps not even that bright, but palpably human.
The story is set is Glasgow. Allison lives in a high-rise flat in a public-housing complex. The flat had been her grandmother's, but had been "passed on to her by the council when her granny died." But Allison is so scared of heights she can't go near the windows.
The story recounts her visit to Malky, her boyfriend, who is doing time for assault. Allison has just turned 38. She desperately wants a child, so desperately that she has even taken steps that Malky would not approve of if he knew of them - and he may well know.
There' some fine writing here, as in this description of a visit from Malky's friend Hugh, who has brought her flowers for her birthday:
Allison headed for the kitchen, trailing lilac and yellow ribbons, leaving Hugh to shut the door behind him. Words ran out of him like a leaky dictionary, all down the hall, and onto the kitchen table, and through the boiling of the kettle, words about his mother, and his ex-wife, and those kids of his that were out of hand, and how lonely he was, and here she was, and Malky said he was to look after her, make sure all her needs were met, and it's her birthday, and did she never get lonely, sweetheart, and who would ever know?
I've hung with people like this, but one rarely sees them portrayed fictionally either as accurately or as sympathetically as they are here. So far, McCallum-Smith is two for two.

Full disclosure: I met Susan McCallum-Smith once at the Baltimore Writers Conference, and she once wrote a review for me when I was a book-review editor. It was a good review, too, of Clare Clark's The Great Stink.

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