Polly Samson’s short story collection, Perfect Lives (no, don’t get distracted by the idea it’s some kind of hybrid novel – it’s not) is a quiet delight. The stories share location and a cast of characters and the recurring sense of the cracks beneath the surface, but that’s not enough to make it a novel. Actually that’s something I’m rather glad of. Each of these stories work on their own (as any short story should) but there’s a flourish that comes with knowing a little bit more about these people as they appear each time. Each voice is freed too, allowed to be its distinct self, where a novel would have needed a finer focus, a far less disparate point of view to carry it successfully through.
The seaside town setting gives a definite ambience to the lives we are presented with. From the get-go there’s a sense of better times in the past; it’s hard to hear the words ‘seaside town’ without wanting to coin the cliché with ‘faded glamour of’. The characters are, like the town itself, clinging to an image from the past. Even when we see the world through the eyes of a child there is a hankering after that perfect moment, a looking forward to finding again the bliss of contact with his beloved babysitter. ‘Perfect’ is different things to different people and herein lies a good deal of the bitter-sweetness to be found. For many of the transactions are one-sided so none of the lives we see are really perfect, but rather there are moments where the light separates from the dark, revealing just how closely they edge one another. Rose Before The Vine stands out for me. The evident fractious history between mother and daughter is like spice in the air. Add to that a secret knowledge that must be shared and the reappearance of a character from an earlier story and you have a tapestry of emotion. Three characters in a blissful moment just waiting to be shattered. It’s this sense of swinging from zenith to nadir, or vice versa, that lends the stories such emotional charge. A Regular Cherub is another example. There’s an ending to bring a tear to the driest of eyes!