By Amy BloomGranta, £10.99
Amy Bloom has the gift of drawing you into her fictional worlds so swiftly and acquainting you with her characters so deftly that, within a few, short sentences, you feel you must have known these people and places in a previous life. This gift helped establish her literary reputation in two previous short-story collections and two novels, and is abundantly in evidence in this new collection. So, too, is Bloom's wry, tender view of human foibles, which renders them both faintly ridiculous and deeply endearing.
Take William and Clare, whose late-blossoming love affair is at the heart of the four linked stories that open this collection. William has gout, a dicky heart and arthritis. Climbing the stairs makes him sweat. Their lovers' trysts are fitted around their medical ailments. Standing together, they look, "like a woolly mammoth and a stiff-tailed duck". Yet for all the evidence of physical decline, or perhaps because of it, this is one of the most poignant and convincing portraits of passionate love I have read in a long time. It is beautiful in its own precise and transcendent way.
All of these stories are concerned in one way or another with love, the arbitrary manner of its appearance, and its life-altering impact. Whether it is the secret love of a young woman for her murdered flatmate; an unhappily married man's violent infatuation with a local waitress, or the long-concealed love of an obnoxious and verbally abusive father for his grown children, Bloom shows us love in all its glorious, painful complexity.
"I won him the way poor people occasionally win the lottery: shameless perseverance and embarrassingly dumb luck", says one narrator of her sweet-natured, life-saving husband, "and every time I see one of those sly, toothless, beaten-down souls on TV holding a winning ticket, I think Go, team."
"I love you past speech," Julia tells the step-son whose life she has wrecked by succumbing to a catastrophic moment of sexual abandon and whom she hasn't seen for 15 years. That he loves her the same way is the tragedy they both live with, endure and ultimately survive.
While not shrinking from the pain that often accompanies relationships, the stories are also full of the joyful richness of human connections. Bloom is wonderful, for example, on the nuances of sibling relationships. Her sharp ear for dialogue and wicked sense of humour are at their most delicious when she has Lionel give his teenage brother a lesson in oral sex with the help of a peach. "Don't slobber," he tells him. "You're not a washcloth. You. Are. A. Lover."
Bloom has said that "the point of every sentence, every detail, factual or imagined, and every line of dialogue is to illuminate character and advance the story." Judging by this collection, she is entirely mistress of her craft.