Sly digs at society’s failings alternate with roundhouse swats while beauty and mystery hover nearby, in a wide-ranging collection of 18 stories by acclaimed British novelist Dunmore (The Siege, 2002; etc.).
The title piece, short and sweet, offers a flinty-eyed glimpse into the life of an über-model coming publicly undone, as she ignores the mantras of her personal trainer at a fête in her honor and succumbs to the creamy blandishments of her favorite, long-denied dessert. There’s more heft to “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork,” a futuristic tale of government-controlled pregnancy and neighborhood subversives—in this case, a couple who conceive the old-fashioned way and are forced to flee for their lives after being exposed. Dunmore also slightly warps reality in “Be Vigilant, Rejoice, Eat Plenty,” which shows a parking meter dispensing good advice to a harried woman on her way to an appointment with her ex to argue about his dwindling support of their child. These stories pale, however, next to the normalcy and romantic subtlety of “My Polish Teacher’s Tie,” which involves a modest half-Polish school cafeteria worker and her pen pal, a poet and teacher from Poland who comes to England for a visit. Similarly engrossing are three pieces featuring a character named Ulli, a sort of Everywoman who experiences life on the edge and love in the afternoon spiked with swift, riveting turns. In “The Icon Room,” Ulli’s chance encounter with an unkempt, compelling lover of poetry leads her from a tearoom to another chamber throbbing with the color and intensity of icon paintings displayed floor to ceiling; she’s so unnerved and enraptured that she is more than accepting of what follows.
It doesn’t always happen, but whenever the commonplace and the sublime pair here, the result is absorbing.