Twelve debut stories from Whitbread winner Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum, 1996) are unparalleled in deftness but in their depth less compelling.
Characters from one tale are sometimes referred to in another—as with Meredith Zane, whose aunt Nanci Zane married a Briton (in the 1970s) and then died during dentistry (“The Bodies Vest”), causing her own dentist father, back in California, to shoot himself. Earlier in the volume but later in time, Meredith (“Transparent Fiction”) is 25 and living with a wannabe scriptwriter in London. When Meredith twitches the cape from the shoulders of a famous producer’s wife, the aging lady turns to dust. Ovid-like metamorphoses appeal to Atkinson, who prefaces the stories with Latin passages, even Greek, allusions that tend to make the stories seem the more minor. A prolixity of cuteness and verve can give energy but can also cloy (“Meredith, Baxter, and Wilson—which sounded like a firm of lawyers—were all girls, as were the endlessly confusing Taylor, Tyler, Skyler, and Sky”). The pieces are nothing, though, if not capable in their details, as in “Tunnel of Fish,” about a young deaf boy’s fantasies, or “Unseen Translation,” about a likably strident nanny who seeks to rescue her charges from the “ordinary.” More familiar still is “Temporal Anomaly,” about an Edinburgh woman who hovers, watching her family’s reactions after she “dies” in a car wreck. In “Wedding Favors,” a divorced mother is alone after her last child leaves for college, while in “The Cat Lover,” a woman’s pet grows huge and she gets pregnant by him. Opening and closing the volume are twin stories, the first about futuristic threats to the world (“Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping”), the other (“Pleasureland”) about its end. In both, the characters rattle off lists of things to do, eat, and buy in another Ovid-like device that, here, just seems minimizing and affected.
Stories, on balance, that appear above all to love the sound of their own voices.