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An engrossing collection of short stories
on 13 March 2011
In this collection of short stories, Samson focuses on the emotional lives and relationships of a loosely-connected group of middle-class people, all having some association with an English seaside town.
This is very cleverly done, with someone who was previously a main character appearing later as a walk-on part in someone else's life, and vice-versa. For example, we see the same woman through the eyes of a shy piano tuner in one story and her over-critical mother in another. Neither portrayal gives the whole picture, but taken together a character emerges. This mirrors real life, with all the various roles people assume and the various biased positions from which they are viewed. The recurring cast of characters has a cumulative effective; for example, in the first line of 'Ivan Knows', a story appearing near the end of the collection, the reader's enjoyment is increased, and curiosity piqued, by their knowing who both Ivan and Lucy are:
"Ivan almost choked on his candyfloss when he saw Laura Idlewild flying past in her blue bra."
The solipsism of the teenager wittily and accurately described in 'At Arka Pana' is offset by the reader's knowledge of her mother's assessment of her in 'Leaving Hamburg', and it is a joy to meet the afore-mentioned Ivan in 'Ivan Knows', having only seen him fleetingly as a small child in other stories. Themes as well as characters recur, being picked up and examined from all sides, and I think this is a book that will repay re-reading.
The stories include first person and third person narration, with one of the best, 'The Birthday Present', being addressed to a 'you' with whom the narrator is obsessed. The identity of the addressee is witheld, although its nature gradually dawns on the reader. Although this might seem tricksy (and another story, 'At Arka Pana', plays a similar game) by the time the reader is made aware of the object of infatuation their passion equals that of the narrator.
I didn't warm to this book immediately, and in retrospect I think the first story is one of the weakest, with the style appearing too mannered and the subject matter and its relation to the title 'Perfect Lives' rather cliched. But reading on, Samson's wit, unflinching eye, and gift for characterization meant I was soon absorbed; and I closed the book feeling uplifted, having had a glimpse into the lives of a group of people, which although not perfect, have moments approaching perfection.