A collection of rare beauty, insight and empathy. Many of Vicky Grut’s characters find themselves in a no-man’s-land that opens up in the midst of their otherwise ordinary lives. Certain characters are reaching for something that seems beyond their grasp, while others are attempting to outwit Fate or to attain a kind of significance in a society intent on demeaning them. One of the most moving stories, Into the Valley, reaches into the universality of death and our determined struggle against it, while in Stranger a lost soul who has spent his day attempting to meet various men who weren’t there meets “expressions of concentrated blankness” on the top deck of a London bus.
In stories such as In the Current Climate, Downsizing and Mistaken Grut makes inventive use of the dystopian aspects of the workplace. Saucers of Sweets provides a sharp, often hilarious, dissection of the power play between writers and their editors. The author’s gift for concise, arresting descriptions with a gothic twist is apparent in the “predatory-looking flowers” on an office desk, while Laura’s resolve to “look for a job that didn’t cost so much, something where you didn’t need to smile so hard or give so much of yourself to people who were only passing through” will be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in a service role.
A personal favourite in this very strong collection is An Unplanned Event, a wonderful biopic of a story, rich in humour and pathos. Eric has been doing the garden of Mrs M, a former head teacher, ever since “the Croydon business” left him with “a head injury and no job” three years before. The story is grounded in its impeccable evocation of Eric’s work— surreptitious chopping back of invasive favourites, ‘no-go’ zones, gardening as warfare — and in the lovingly-sketched cast. But this is Eric’s story, and his forlorn history leeches out in flashes of detail: foster care, a children’s home, a stint in the army, intense loneliness and the conflation of violent and affectionate physical contact in his relationship with Stu. And then, the moment when the story turns — “a low hum, like a Flymo skimming across some faraway lawn” — followed by a transcendent passage in which “his eyes turned inwards” and the story reaches its conclusion in “a great ocean swell of happiness”. Wonderful writing, and as glorious an ending as I’ve read in a long time.