While Sophie Hannah’s voice is consistent throughout this ten-tale collection, the book is, in terms of genre, very much of two halves.
Five of the tales conform to what may be called ‘uncanny.’ The narrator voice, increasingly neurotic as domestic paranoia sets in, gradually making us doubt our first assumption. ‘The Octopus Nest’ cleverly switches the stalker with the stalked, justifying that doubt in the most satisfying and unexpected way.
‘Friendly Amid the Haters’ concerns a harboured bid for revenge against a personal, physical attack, and we wonder, right up until the end, whether her extreme choice will be finally acted upon.
The title story concerns a woman who lives by the delusion of a double life and how she thinks others perceive it. Once she reveals she has been sacked by more than one previous employer, it doesn’t take us long to understand why.
‘The Nursery Bear’’ has the Aickman influence in a series of odd events that may or may not be linked, but form a dreadful coherence in the narrator’s mind. With ‘The Octopus Nest’ the highlight, this is the second best tale here flawed only by a late scene involving a mirror-image front room in the neighbour’s house which, somehow, doesn’t work as an enticement to additional fear. A gilding of the lily this excellent tale doesn’t need.
In ‘The Tub,’ a woman left licking her wounds from a possibly unrequited love is left to confide in one who desires only her body. The man lacks any real character beyond his carnal intent, while the woman’s hopeless bid to salvage words of comfort from him becomes increasingly psychotic.
The remaining five tales dispense with the uncanny element entirely, being little more than blackly humorous episodes of imaginary sitcom. But Hannah remains strong on her fellow woman and the stifled subjective opinions that stem from saving face.
‘We All Say What We Want’ is a wish-fulfilling tryout by a husband and wife who break out of their boring lifestyle by joining a pair of pleasure-seekers. (Read it and admit to whose side you wish you were on).
In ‘Twelve Noon,’ a woman’s thin-skinned sense of guilt extends to the time she has left with her limited parking space and its advice, ‘maximum stay two hours – no return within two hours,’ taken as a dire warning.
‘Herod’s Valentines’ involves an insecure single who becomes willingly deferential to another, richer, more egocentric, and more sexually profligate than herself. Agreeing to help her with her sexual half-life for a large amount of money, the second woman only causes problems for herself. A night-time fantasy involving Christopher and Peter Hitchens is a comic highlight in a clever but slightly too long tale of passive domination.
‘You Are a Gongedip’ appears to concern the pathological envy of a publisher’s employee who stalks the writer she had wanted to be, and the (unjustified) psychological revenge she exacts. Again, Hannah is less convincing with the male voice. More than once, I was certain Hannah herself was narrator when in truth her gender floundered, uncertainly, as the male author.
‘The Most Enlightened Person I’ve Ever Met’ reads as a wish-fulfilment fantasy of Hannah’s very own, where a woman, disappointed by the ending of her relationship, draws her ex-lover into a confession of his failings and a shock final entrapment.
The quality of Hannah’s writing is high and consistent, although I found the sitcom-type stories held much less interest than those told as ambiguous mysteries. In these, she displays the best of both worlds.
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