Young British writer Dunn debuts with a collection of three stories and a novella exploring—with insight and empathy—the darker sides of suburbia. Taking as her setting the farther suburbs of London, which are close enough to that city for a day of shopping but far enough away to be surrounded by fields, Dunn tells stories of the lower middle class—a class edging up into the middle but still constrained by the need to measure out the smallest pleasures with care. A week's holiday spent in a Spanish pension is saved for all year; children's clothes are bought at rummage sales; and the possession of a car is luxury. The narrator of the title novella, a widowed secretary at a small local elementary school, becomes increasingly concerned with the well-being of her assistant Laura, whose two children are at the school. Laura lives in public housing, is withdrawn, and, unlike her flashy sister Cassie, seems to have been neglected by her mother. But as the narrator's suspicions of the childhood abuse of Laura increase, she learns that she herself has failed not only to understand what really happened, but has never appreciated the stifling psychological pressure that her late husband had exerted on her own daughter, Helen. The three stories describe the return home of a much disliked elder stepsister, nicknamed the ``Snow Queen,'' fleeing an unhappy marriage; a daughter attending her mother's 50th birthday party recalling her mother's unhappiness and depression while raising her and her siblings; and a pregnant middle-aged woman being driven to suicide by her elder daughter's powerful malevolence. First fiction from one of those rare contemporary writers who, by giving her characters' lives a certain integrity, makes their plight credible and not simply a lurid venture into suburban gothic. Promising.
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