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Wholly about the heart

24 November 2010

Peter Anthony rediscovers the joy of short stories

Aphrodite’s Hat
Salley Vickers
Fourth Estate £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

I HAD forgotten just how enjoyable a collec­tion of short stories could be, until I read Aphrodite’s Hat. Salley Vickers offers us a very accomplished selection of 17 short narratives, all of which, the dust jacket says, deal with various aspects of love.

The first thing to be said is that these short stories are definitely short. Many of them are not much more than ten pages long, and yet characters are fleshed out, and emotion and atmosphere are vividly evoked through prose that feels remarkably crafted and distilled.

In the story that the volume is named after, Aphrodite’s Hat, the narrator recounts the break-up of her relationship with James, a man with whom she has been having a long-term affair. They meet again in the National Gallery, under Cranach the Elder’s picture of Aphrodite, who stands naked apart from a remarkable lampshade-like hat.

Her near-naked pose comes to represent, as the story progresses, the emotional vulnerabil­ity that we necessarily experience in our rela­tionships with others. Aphrodite flaunts her nakedness, and yet does not lay herself en­tirely open; for she does, at least, retain her outlandish hat.

The narrator comes longingly to wish she had followed Aphrodite’s example, and not exposed herself so completely to the bitter possibilities of loss and separation. That yearn­ing for things lost, and regret at possi­bili­ties never realised, is a theme picked up by Vickers in many of the other stories, as is the attract­ive, and dangerous, allure of infidelity and illicit love.

Some of her narratives involve sunnier themes, however, such as the delight of an un­expected pregnancy for a childless couple, love found in old age, or the beguiling crafti­ness of a child persuading her parents to get her a mar­malade cat. Vickers weaves a finely tuned, understated wit throughout many of these stories.

A slight criticism might be that the volume has a distinctly Woman’s Hour feel to it. The number of plot twists that seem to centre on the agonised sex-lives of London-dwelling middle-aged, middle-class women is quite pronounced. That said, this is an engaging collection of excellent short prose.

The Revd Peter Anthony is Junior Dean of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.

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